Pentagon Eyes Satellites Equipped with Joystick-controlled Video Cameras

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WASHINGTON — At an undisclosed location in Europe in October, U.S. intelligence workers and military officials got their first glimpse of a European-pioneered technology that could offer a new way to monitor battlefields, shipping lanes or disaster-relief zones.

The tool is video from space. U.S. personnel recently got a demonstration of video beamed from a German-built satellite. The video was taken by a 50-kilogram satellite called LAPAN-TUBSat. It showed the terrain where the U.S. team was participating in a military exercise.

The satellite was built by the Technical University of Berlin — the TUB in TUBSat — for the National Institute of Aeronautics and Space of Indonesia, abbreviated as LAPAN. An Indian rocket blasted LAPAN-TUBSat into low Earth orbit in 2007.

With the United States facing a shortage of full-motion video from unmanned aircraft in Afghanistan, and constant warnings from intelligence officials that the country might not have immediate control of the airspace in the next war or crisis, the U.S. Defense Department’s Operationally Responsive Space (ORS) Office has begun a six-month assessment of the technology. It sees a potential to deploy video cameras aboard satellites much as cameras are installed on manned and unmanned aircraft, ground vehicles and security towers.

ORS officials arranged for the viewing in Europe. They are reaching out for opinions from commanders in all domains — air, land, sea and special operations — about its potential usefulness.

Marine Corps Lt. Col. Robert Terselic, who once coordinated artillery and bombing strikes for Marines in Iraq, thinks he knows what field commanders will say: “Talk to an ops guy who’s got nothing, and say, ‘I’ll bring you this.’ He’ll say, ‘Bring it on.’” Terselic manages ORS Tier 1 projects, meaning equipment that exists in the commercial world or defense industry that can be adapted quickly for military space applications. Higher-tier concepts are those that require more research and development. Part of his job is to act as a liaison with operational forces.

Beaming the precise equivalent of airborne full-motion video is not what Terselic is talking about. That would be impossibly expensive — the satellites would need large solar arrays, batteries, processors and antennas.

The Pentagon could not afford enough of those satellites to revisit a piece of terrain often enough to be militarily useful. The satellites whiz by overhead, providing two minutes to three minutes of coverage per pass. Parking satellites in geosynchronous orbit 35,000 kilometers up is not an option because their camera lenses would have to be huge to provide meaningful ground resolution.

Instead, Terselic and the ORS Office are exploring the idea of buying a “pearl string” of six to eight simple, 50-kilogram-class satellites similar to the LAPAN-TUBSat, though perhaps not identical, and perhaps not from the German technical university. They have not gotten that far in their analysis.

According to its makers, LAPAN-TUBSat captures about 25 frames a second, not quite the 30 frames a second under the definition of full-motion video. “The human eye would see a slightly staggered view,” Terselic said.

TUBSat’s resolving power also is not as fine as that of airborne video cameras. Engineers attempted a 6-meter resolution, but from space, the satellites are providing 8- to 10-meter resolution. They could never track individual terrorist suspects, Terselic said, but they could spot groups of people, such as refugees fleeing a natural disaster or war.

The exact capabilities of the notional pearl string would depend on the size and number of the satellites that were chosen. Depending on all that, they could provide some coverage of an area every hour, Terselic said.

For ORS, cost is a huge factor. Terselic said he likes the feedback he has gotten so far from the U.S. officials who participated in the demonstration in Europe, but he said ORS is just starting to explore the need for the satellites and possible options for vendors. What is certain is that the pearl string could not cost more than $60 million under ORS’ philosophy of buying only what is “good enough.”

The LAPAN-TUBSat spacecraft cost Indonesia about 1 million euros ($1.5 million), not including the rocket to launch it, a TUBSat official said. A second Indonesian satellite scheduled for launch in April 2011 with a high-definition video camera will cost about 2 million euros.

“You cannot compare [LAPAN-TUBSat] to a big satellite, but we have a good price-per-capability ratio,” said JuergenHaese, chief executive of Kappa opto-electronics, the Goettingen, Germany-based company that built the LAPAN-TUBSat video camera and is building the high-definition camera.

Haese said he sees space video as a potential growth area for his small company. Part of the growth plan involves high-definition video. That video will provide better contrast and color than the standard video on LAPAN-TUBSat, Haese said. Design work is going well, he added.

One of the challenges was the bandwidth and power the high-definition video would soak up during transmissions. Kappa engineers have devised mathematical algorithms to compress the images so they can still be sent by a small satellite.

Earlier this year, Kappa deepened its business partnership with the Technical University of Berlin, which has launched seven TUBSats since 1991.

“We just agreed that we would really market the satellites on a bigger scale,” said Udo Renner, the former European Space Agency official who came up with the idea of stripping satellites to their essentials and installing cameras on them. Renner, a professor at the university, calls the TUBSat concept “my baby.”

In addition to Indonesia, Morocco is a customer, having launched Moroc-TUBSat in 2001. Morocco also is buying a second TUBSat.

U.S. forces have told Terselic that they want to be able to control where the satellite looks if they get video cameras in space. That is one of the biggest complaints that troops, intelligence analysts and commanders have about other satellites and some unmanned aircraft — they cannot “retask” them quickly, if they can get access to their views at all.

Control would not be a problem in the case of the TUBSat, backers said. An operator controls the view with a joystick.

“If you see something interesting, a plane — if you decide you want to follow the plane, you follow the plane,” Renner said.

During a demonstration in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, for example, TUBSat officials borrowed the ground station that Dubai is using to control the Dubai Sat 1 imaging satellite. An operator controlled TUBSat with a joystick and imaged the Palm Jumeirah artificial island off Dubai, in the Arabian Gulf.