Microcosm Designing Low-Cost Imagery Satellite for Army, Working on Launch Vehicle

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LOS ANGELES — Spacecraft engineering firm Microcosm Inc. for the past year has been designing an imaging satellite for the U.S. Army that it says could eventually be bulk bought for about $1 million a copy.

An executive with the Hawthorne, Calif.-based company said Microcosm engineers recently came up with an idea for a new small-satellite launch vehicle they hope the Air Force will help develop.

The Army Space and Missile Defense Command in April 2009 awarded Microcosm a $120,000 contract to do initial design work on a satellite called NanoEye, Richard Van Allen, vice president of the company’s space systems division, said March 9 at the Responsive Space Conference here. Last month, the company was awarded a $730,000 follow-on contract that will culminate with a preliminary design review. Microcosm estimates it would need an additional $1 million and 18 months to build and test the demonstration satellite, Van Allen said.

NanoEye was conceived to provide rapid access to imagery over a specific location and launch within hours of call-up. It would use a telescope with a 0.25-meter aperture built by ITT Corp. of Rochester, N.Y., and be flown in a very low orbit for a duration of six months to a year, Van Allen said. The optimal altitude for NanoEye is 200 kilometers to 300 kilometers, where it could produce imagery with ground resolution of 0.5 meters to 0.7 meters. Microcosm is designing the satellite to be capable of flying as low as 160 kilometers, an altitude near the threshold for maintaining orbit.

The company has conceived several variants of the satellite, ranging from a basic electro-optical version that could be bought in blocks of 10 satellites for about $900,000 a piece, to an advanced electro-optical and infrared version that would cost about $1.4 million each in blocks of 10.

The low prices envisioned for the satellites are enabled by standardized Cubesat technologies, a low-cost payload, and the willingness of the Army to allow “a new way of doing business,” Van Allen said.

Though there are several launch options for NanoEye today, none provides a great combination of low price and short call-up to launch, Van Allen said. For that reason, Microcosm has conceived of a new 100-kilogram-class, liquid fueled rocket that could launch within 24 hours of call-up.

The company for the last 16 years has been working in fits and starts on its Scorpius family of small- and medium-class launch vehicles, Thomas Bauer, the company’s director of systems engineering, said March 10. The Air Force had been funding the project, and two suborbital flight tests were conducted several years ago, but funding has since dried up, he said.

The company unveiled at the conference its smallest rocket concept yet, the Scorpius Mini-Sprite, a three-stage, liquid oxygen-kerosene fueled rocket.

Microcosm believes the rockets could cost as little as $3 million each if the Air Force would pay for the development costs. The company estimates it needs about $15 million and 20 months to develop and validate the Scorpius Mini-Sprite.

Small satellites are accounting for a greater proportion of the total number of satellites launched each year, but there is no affordable option for launching the smallest of these satellites, Bauer said. The Space Experiments Review Board, which is the military’s mechanism for selecting small demonstration satellites for launch, has 59 approved missions. The Scorpius Mini-Sprite would be capable of launching 36 of these satellites, Bauer said.

“There is an underserved small satellite market, and it’s very difficult to get a single small satellite to orbit,” Bauer said. “We believe most of the market could be served by Scorpius.”