Army hoping for new smallsat imaging and space situational awareness sensors

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HUNTSVILLE, Ala. – The U.S. Army is looking for small sensors that can help with imaging and space situational awareness as it continues to evolve its small satellite program.

The Army has launched 10 small satellites since 2010 including three experimental communications satellites for the Army’s Space and Missile Defense Command that launched in October as part of a National Reconnaissance Office mission. In addition, a small electro-optical imaging satellite known as Kestrel Eye, is expected to launch later this year or early next year from the International Space Station after it arrives via a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket.

In a presentation here Aug. 18 at the Space and Missile Defense Symposium, Julie Schumacher, deputy to the commander of the Army’s Space and Missile Defense Command/Army Forces Strategic Command, highlighted several technologies the service continues to seek out from industry as its small satellite program moves forward.

They include laser communication, small sensors for imaging and space situational awareness as well as high capacity electronics and processors that would reduce the size, weight and power required by those systems.

While the Army has several small satellites on orbit, Schumacher said Kestrel Eye and the communications satellites, known as the SMDC Nanosatellite Program, or SNaP, are technology demonstration projects and not a program of record at this time.

Each of the three SNaP cubesats weigh about 4.5 kilograms and are used to help develop radios that provide “beyond-line-of-sight communication for disadvantaged users in remote locations,” according to an NRO fact sheet. Those satellites cost about $500,000 each and have an expected design life of about two years in low earth orbit, Schumacher said. A full constellation would include as many as 30 satellites.

Kestrel Eye, whose launch date has been postponed several times since 2013, ran into development problems common for first-time efforts, Schumacher said. The goal of the Kestrel Eye demonstration is to task the satellite to take a picture of an image on the ground and have the image relayed back to a solider within the same satellite pass, often within 10 minutes.