WASHINGTON — Engineers at Raytheon Space and Airborne Systems over the past year have increased by tenfold the rate at which data from a new space-based hyperspectral sensor can be exploited for military and humanitarian uses, Raytheon officials said June 6.

At the same time, El Segundo, Calif.-based Raytheon is working on multiple architecture options should the U.S. government decide to pursue a constellation of satellites based on its Advanced Responsive Tactically Effective Military Imaging Spectrometer (ARTEMIS) payload, said Tom McDonald, Raytheon’s director of defense, civil and international space programs.

The ARTEMIS payload is the primary instrument on the TacSat-3 satellite developed by the Air Force Research Laboratory and Operationally Responsive Space Office. The satellite was launched in May 2009 to a 425-kilometer-high orbit, and has successfully completed a 13-month demonstration of its hyperspectral imaging capability, which enables the military to identify materials on the ground from space based on how they reflect and absorb sunlight. The instrument also was used during the demonstration period to aid in the relief efforts after devastating earthquakes struck Haiti and Chile in 2010, McDonald said during a media briefing.

At the behest of Air Force Space Command, the satellite transitioned to operations in June 2010. With a full year of operations now complete, TacSat-3 and ARTEMIS are performing well and are expected to operate for another six to eight months, McDonald said.

“The program was successful … and has lasted longer than expected in part because of the quieter than expected period in the solar cycle,” McDonald said.

Operations of the satellite have progressed to the point where the payload is generating about 100 so-called hypercube data products each month, each of which is composed of 400 image slices containing several thousand pixels collected in a particular wavelength, McDonald said. The time needed to compare those hypercubes to a catalog of known materials and provide useful information for troops on the ground has been reduced dramatically since the beginning of the program. A data product that used to take a full day to exploit can now be processed in just a few hours, McDonald said.

Today all of the processing and analysis of the ARTEMIS raw data is done in the United States, and then actionable information is relayed to troops elsewhere in the world. Raytheon engineers are working on a software upgrade for the spacecraft that will allow it to do a limited amount of automated exploitation and send a virtual “data chip” directly to users in the field, McDonald said.

“What we’ve been doing on the investment side within Raytheon is looking at compacting that information and in the future being able send down what we call a data chip to decision makers in the field so they don’t have to deal with that voluminous block of data, but simply a predigested subset that says in this region of interest in the image you’re looking at, here’s what the sensor thinks is there,” he said. “That could be used to cue up an airborne system to go interrogate.”

The improving analysis of space-based hyperspectral data is in part attributable to work Raytheon has done on exploitation algorithms for aerial hyperspectral data. Raytheon and the Air Force last year completed field testing a hyperspectral payload intended to fly on Predator unmanned aerial vehicles, said Tim Carey, the company’s vice president for intelligence surveillance and reconnaissance systems. While a deployed aerial sensor could not cover the same amount of territory as a similar sensor in space, it would have the advantages of being able to loiter over one area for an extended period and return imagery with much higher spatial resolution, Carey said. The company has several other ongoing government data exploitation projects underway, such as one intended to fuse hyperspectral imagery with traditional black-and-white and multispectral imagery, he said.

While the Defense Department is likely several years away from deciding to procure additional hyperspectral space sensors, Raytheon is crafting options for space-based architectures that could feature improved capabilities, McDonald said. Depending on the specific coverage needs of the government, a constellation of two to four sensors on dedicated spacecraft or hosted on other spacecraft would be effective, he said.

The ARTEMIS sensor operates in the short-wave infrared region of the electromagnetic spectrum, making it primarily capable of observing solid materials. The sensor could be upgraded in the future to also collect long-wave infrared imagery, which would enable it to detect and characterize gas plumes and atmospheric content, McDonald said.

“We’re probably looking at another two or three years down the road for the Air Force to make that decision once they finish evaluating the existing assets.”