Critics Worry There May Be More to MiTEx than Meets the Eye

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The Pentagon is hoping that the recent launch of two small satellites will help the military find new ways to reduce the cost of building and launching spacecraft.

The Micro-satellite Technology Experiment (MiTEx), which was launched June 22 aboard a Boeing Delta 2 rocket from Cape Canaveral in Florida, includes satellites built separately by Lockheed Martin Corp. of Bethesda, Md., and Orbital Sciences Corp. of Dulles, Va. The rocket featured nine strap-on motors and a nine-and-a-half-meter payload fairing.

The two satellites are intended to help the military pursue a variety of goals. Technology will be explored to help the military develop better power, propulsion, avionics and communications systems, according to an undated Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency ( DARPA) fact sheet provided to Space News by Jan Walker, a DARPA spokeswoman. The experiment also is intended to evaluate the effectiveness of some unspecified commercially available components.

The satellites were built by the two companies for DARPA . The U.S. Air Force paid for the Delta 2 launch, while the Naval Research Laboratory funded the development of an experimental upper-stage for the rocket that is designed for what the DARPA fact sheet calls precision orbital transfer.

“The Upper Stage program will result in the design, manufacture, and flight demonstration of an innovative, prototype propulsion system that meets propulsion requirements for transferring spacecraft from a Geosynchronous Transfer Orbit into [geostationary] orbits,” according to the DARPA fact sheet. “The Upper Stage provides the change in velocity (delta-V) and autonomous maneuvering capabilities needed to support a wide variety of emerging applications.”

Some critics of the program are concerned about what some of those emerging applications might be and that the MiTEx satellites might have uses beyond what the Pentagon has disclosed thus far.

Theresa Hitchens, director of the Center for Defense Information, a think tank here, said that the upper stage developed for the MiTEx experiment raises questions about the intent of the demonstration.

Information about the rocket that was released by Boeing Co., as well as news reports, indicated that it carried more weight than needed to put two small satellites into geostationary orbit, Hitchens said.

A June 21 news report on the Web site SpaceFlightNow.com indicates that each satellite weighed about 450 kilograms, and a Boeing fact sheet states that the Delta 2 configuration used for the launch has a capacity to put 1,759 kilograms into geo-transfer orbit, indicating that 1,300 kilograms remained to account for the upper stage as well as hardware for deploying the microsatellites, according to Ryan Caron, a research assistant at the center. Upper stages used to carry payloads from geostationary transfer orbit generally weigh about the same as their payloads, he said.

This could mean that the Delta 2 was carrying an additional small spacecraft that the military did not disclose, Hitchens said.

Alternatively, the upper stage could be carrying much more fuel than is necessary to boost the small satellites in a geostationary orbit, Hitchens said. This could be used to enable the upper stage to move quickly into another location to enable the micro-satellites to stealthily inspect the military’s own satellites, spy on those of an enemy, or attack an enemy spacecraft, she said.

The upper stage also is equipped with platinum/rhodium alloy thrusters, which are typically used in long endurance missions, suggesting that the upper stage could linger on orbit for weeks or months before stealthily releasing the two satellites, adding to the stealth factor, she said. This would fit in with concepts of operations that have been discussed for using some space weapons, Hitchens said.

“I’m concerned about the United States moving forward with the testing of an anti-satellite capability at a time when there hasn’t been a full public discussion of the ramifications,” Hitchens said. “I believe that doing so raises concerns from other countries — perhaps needlessly — about the direction of U.S. space policy and it could cause other nations to begin or in some cases accelerate efforts of their own to develop anti-satellite technology. It’s important that any research and development on anti-satellite capabilities is integrated into an agreed upon and achievable space security strategy.”

Barron Beneski, a spokesman for Orbital Sciences, said that the MiTEx experiments are classified and deferred to DARPA for comment on the project. Steve Tatum, a Lockheed Martin spokesman, also deferred to DARPA for comment.

Walker did not return phone calls requesting comment beyond the fact sheet.

Dick Thompson, a spokesman for the Naval Research Laboratory, also did not return phone calls requesting comment.