President, Chief Operating Officer, MicroSat Systems Inc.
M icroSat Systems is in a vastly different position today than in spring 2003, when the U.S. Air Force canceled TechSat 21, the program that led to the company’s founding two years earlier.
Technology incubator ITN Energy Systems created MicroSat after winning the contract to build the three tiny radar-equipped satellites, which were supposed to fly in formation to demonstrate the concept of distributed collection apertures. While TechSat 21 proved too challenging, MicroSat was able to apply the experience in building TacSat-2, one of a new series of satellites designed to show how low-cost space systems can be deployed quickly to support troops in the field.
TacSat-2 was launched in December, and its performance to date — in spite of an early technical glitch and a policy dispute that has idled one of its main payloads — has created new opportunities for Littleton, Colo.-based MicroSat, says John Roth, its president and chief operating officer. For example, TacSat-2’s modular platform design recently was added to Rapid-2, NASA’s catalog of readily available spacecraft.
Roth spoke with Space News staff writer Jeremy Singer during the recent National Space Symposium in Colorado Springs, Colo.
What’s happening with main payloads on TacSat-2?
We have a lot of data from the imager, and are very happy with the image quality, the geo-location accuracy of the images, and the functionality of the Common Data Link, which is used for communications with the satellite. The Common Data Link had some problems initially, but the Air Force implemented software upgrades that have addressed those issues.
The checkout has been completed with the signals-intelligence payload, and I believe the military will start collections once they finalize agreements with the intelligence agencies. I think they are very close to having those agreements in place.
What kind of feedback are you getting from the military on TacSat-2
We’re getting a lot of cautious optimism. The people that we’re talking to in the higher positions are pleased with the data that they’re getting. They’re happy with the status of the satellite, and now they’d like to turn some of the demonstrations into tests of operational utility. That is still something that I would not say has been proven. That’s what the community is looking at — the first question was “can you build a small, inexpensive satellite with the capability to do the TacSat-2 mission?” I think we’ve checked the box on that. The TacSat-2 satellite for its mass and cost is incredibly capable.
Now the next question is “can the TacSat satellites have the operational utility to do an operational satellite mission?” We’re just getting to the point with TacSat-2 where we can do that kind of testing.
Are you seeing
interest from other customers based on
TacSat-2’s performance to date?
It has very much opened the gates for our company. We knew that until we had flight heritage with a U.S. government customer — in this case the Air Force — the door to NASA and commercial opportunities was probably going to be pretty much closed.
We just got a Rapid-2 contract from NASA to get in their catalog. It was incredibly fortuitous that they had an open window for Rapid-2 right at the time that our satellite was launching. So we think that the door is open now to potential NASA missions and commercial missions.
Did NASA include you in Rapid-2
after seeing TacSat-2
Yes. You have to have at least integrated onto a launch vehicle before you can be considered, and we had completed the integration with the Minotaur. The proposals were due a few days before the launch, but obviously the evaluation of our proposal took into account that it had launched and was operating successfully. I’m sure that we never would have gotten into the catalog had we not had a successful TacSat-2 mission.
With the NASA budget being what it is, struggling to fund Earth science and even small lunar missions, we think that the kind of capabilities we bring will really help them do lower-cost missions.
commercial opportunities do you see?
The biggest opportunity that may happen for our company right now is the Orbcomm replenishment — Orbcomm Generation-2. The down-select is supposed to happen by the end of April. There is a minimum buy of 18 satellites, with an option for 30 additional satellites.
Those orders come around once in a decade — or every other decade — so it’s a huge opportunity for us. If TacSat-2 had not been successful on orbit, I can pretty much guarantee that Orbcomm would not be considering us. There are also two other opportunities in the commercial world that I can’t talk about at this time.
Has Operationally Responsive Space (ORS) truly caught on in
the Defense Department?
There are many supporters in the Air Force for responsive space, but there also are a lot of people who are skeptical whether the small satellites of responsive space are going to provide sufficient operational capability. So there is still an uphill battle in making sure that the ORS concept moves forward, but Congress is a major supporter of the concept, and there are some high-level supporters within the Defense Department . I think the stars are aligning to make that a viable business area that our company is absolutely committed to moving after.
We understand there is going to be a procurement this year for TacSat-5. The Pentagon is working through candidate missions for TacSat-5. The second big effort for us is the initial block of operational TacSats, and obviously we want to go after that block buy.
What’s the schedule for
the operational satellites?
I believe that the Pentagon budget request for 2008 has $22 million to begin that block buy. We think that would probably be awarded late in 2008. Serious planning for the first block buy of operational satellites probably isn’t going to get started until the ORS office is in place, which is expected to happen in the near future.
Do you envision building satellite payloads as well as platforms
Our focus has been on a modular bus. We would like to be sure that we have a bus solution that would satisfy a number of the different missions that the military has looked at. We also are talking to many payload partners, who I don’t want to mention at this point, to be able to provide an entire mission as opposed to just the satellite bus. We don’t know yet whether the procurements will be separate for the payload and bus or if there will be a single procurement for the missions.
Our long-term strategy right now is not to develop our own payloads.
How small are the satellites that you are focused on?
Our primary focus has been on micro and small satellites — the 100-kilogram up to the 500-kilogram range . However, we recently hosted the CANEUS small satellite working group, which is looking at smaller satellites — from a few kilograms up to a few tens of kilograms. The CANEUS organization originally stood for Canada, Europe and the United States, but it now includes Japan.
One of the first areas of interest that group is talking about is flight qualification of technologies — using these very small, low-cost platforms to flight qualify technologies that are having a very difficult time getting into space.
Do you have any interest in the international market?
The international market takes a lot of time and money to pursue. As we grow and get more flight heritage, we think that’s a market we could potentially address, but we’re focused on the U.S. market at the moment.
What lessons have you learned thus far from TacSat-2?
One of the challenging aspects with TacSat-2 is that there were so many payloads. It’s hard enough to get a small satellite to do one focused mission. In terms of resources, you can only point so many things nadir at a time. And power requirements — we were really taxing the limits of the small satellite on the TacSat-2 mission. I believe that in the future, for operational missions, limiting the payloads to one or two is going to be the way to get the performance you want in terms of power and the amount of active on time, versus the time that you are collecting solar energy for the battery.
As a company, we need to internally fight our desire to make the small satellites higher and higher performance to where we start losing the advantage of lower cost and shorter development timeframes.