Military Space Quarterly | DARPA Eyes Low-cost, Quick-reaction Imaging Constellation

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WASHINGTON — A U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) effort to study a constellation of imagery satellites that could be deployed within 90 days of a request is drawing comparisons to a rapid-response military space activity that the Pentagon has marked for termination.

In a broad agency announcement released May 9, DARPA said it intends to award multiple study contracts, whose combined value is not to exceed $45 million, for the Space Enabled Effects for Military Engagements (SeeMe) program. Bids were due June 29 for the program, ultimately aimed at providing imagery directly to U.S. forces at a cost of less than $500,000 per satellite.

The small, short-lived SeeMe satellites would be networked into existing communications systems, the solicitation said.

Josh Hartman, a former Pentagon space policy official and currently a principal at the Center for Strategic Space Studies here, said SeeMe represents the kind of innovation that was a hallmark of the Pentagon’s Operationally Response Space (ORS) activity, which would be shut down next year if the agency gets its way.

“The best way to say this is that the national space community finds itself at a crossroads where it realizes to continue to provide value to the military users in the future, they have got to do business differently,” Hartman said in a June 27 interview. “But they are having trouble drafting a plan that will allow them to safely transition from the programs of record to the programs of the future. And programs like SeeMe and ORS and other very innovative programs to doing space is the right recipe to get them there.”

While he acknowledged that deploying a constellation of satellites in 90 days would be ”difficult, if not impossible,” Hartman said he appreciates the fact that DARPA is pursing the effort. Currently it takes an average of one to two years to build a satellite, according to the solicitation notice, but DARPA officials do not let such perceived limitations keep them from pursuing innovative solutions, he said.

An operational goal of SeeMe would be persistent surveillance of a given area, with coverage gaps limited to 90 minutes, according to the notice. This would make it more difficult for adversaries to hide their activities, Hartman said.

Loren Thompson, chief operating officer at the Lexington Institute in Arlington, Va., said the goals for the SeeMe program are revolutionary in terms of timeliness in putting satellites on orbit. DARPA has become increasingly interested in meeting the needs of tactical forces in cost-effective ways, he said.

“In the old days, the agency would come up with cutting-edge solutions that sometimes are very costly, but the global war on terror has underscored the need for quick and affordable solutions,” Thompson said in a June 27 telephone interview.

The SeeMe program addresses a longstanding complaint that the “lowest echelon” U.S. military forces cannot quickly obtain satellite imagery for reasons that include prioritization conflicts and classification restrictions, according to the solicitation notice.

There is a situational awareness information gap both before and after military engagements because of inconsistent availability of imagery, the solicitation said. Closing that gap would increase the chances of success while reducing the risk to U.S. forces, according to the notice.

Assuming funding availability for future phases of the program, SeeMe managers envision an on-orbit demonstration of 24 low Earth orbiting satellites in 2014 or 2015, according to the solicitation notice.