BOSTON — A small experimental satellite slated for launch Dec. 11 could mark a giant step toward a capability U.S. military commanders have talked about since the 1991 Persian Gulf War: the ability to directly manage the collection and distribution of satellite data to support operations in the field.
TacSat-2, cobbled together largely from commercially available components — some never designed for space operations — is awaiting launch from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia aboard a U.S. Air Force M inotaur rocket. The spacecraft is equipped with both an imaging sensor and a signals-intelligence payload, and data from both is expected to be delivered within minutes of collection, said Neal Peck, TacSat-2 program manager at the Air Force Research Laboratory’s Space Vehicles Directorate at Kirtland Air Force Base, N.M.
TacSat-2 is one of a series of experimental spacecraft that represent a wider effort to make space-based capabilities more responsive to the needs of forces in the field. The lack of timely information from satellites was one of the biggest complaints lodged by senior U.S. military officers in the wake of the first Gulf War.
To expedite and lower the cost of TacSat-2’s production, the Air Force Research Laboratory made several departures from conventional practice, Peck said in a Nov. 29 interview. For example, the laboratory initially turned to its traditional contractors for the main imaging sensor, but changed course after these companies came up with options costing in the neighborhood of $10 million, he said.
Instead, the laboratory purchased a telescope available to sophisticated amateur astronomers that costs about $20,000, Peck said. The lab then spent about $2 million designing and building a sensor based on the telescope, he said. The sensor can collect color images sharp enough to distinguish ground objects as small as 1 meter in diameter, Peck said.
TacSat-2 is designed to be tasked directly by commanders on the battlefield as it passes overhead , Peck said. The spacecraft also can receive tasking requests from other users over a secure Internet site, and put those requests into a queue for later action, he said. The time from data collection to delivery will be measured in minutes rather than hours or days, he said.
The satellite’s signals-intelligence payload, called the Target Indicator Experiment, is designed to detect radio-wave emitters , Peck said. The sensor could be used in concert with a P-3 patrol aircraft to precisely geo-locate enemy targets such as radars and transmitters, he said.
The TacSat-2 program began with the goal of designing, building and testing the spacecraft within 15 months. However, the Air Force missed its original target of a launch-ready satellite by April 2005 because of an early funding shortfall , Peck said.
Peck said the cost of the TacSat-2 experiment is less than $100 million, but declined to be more specific. A U.S. Government Accountability Office report issued in March pegged the cost at $35 million, not including launch.
In order to raise money for the program, the Air Force offered up TacSat-2 as a host platform for a variety of experimental payloads that had launch-related funds available, Peck said. But this drove up the complexity of the spacecraft, and hosting fees only offset the cost of integrating the additional payloads , he said.
As a result of these lessons, secondary experiments have not been pursued for the third and fourth TacSats, he said.
Despite the delay, TacSat-2 will still launch before TacSat-1. That satellite initially was slated to launch in January 2004, but a variety of issues with the Falcon 1 launch vehicle — including a maiden-flight failure in March — have pushed the schedule into 2007. The Falcon 1 is a new vehicle developed by startup Space Exploration Technologies Corp. () of El Segundo, Calif.
Elon Musk, founder and chief executive of SpaceX, said the company has made modifications to the rocket following the failure, including adding a more extensive automated vehicle-health monitoring system. SpaceX is slated to conduct a demonstration Falcon 1 launch for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency in January, and could launch TacSat-1 in April if all goes well, Musk said.
The military’s use of TacSat-2 will be purely experimental, and coordinated by Air Force Space Command and U.S. Strategic Command, Peck said. The satellite is expected to operate for six months to a year. He attributed the relatively short lifetime to the use of low-cost commercially available components that were not designed for the harsh space environment.
The satellite features a platform built by MicroSat Systems Inc. of Littleton, Colo. TacSat-2’s design borrows from work the company did for the Air Force’s TechSat21 flight experiment, a formation-flying demonstration that was canceled in 2003.
John Roth, president of MicroSat Systems, said there is significant design and component commonality between TacSat-2, Techsat21 and another platform the company is building for the Air Force, the Demonstration of Science Experiments satellite slated to launch in 2008.
MicroSat Systems hopes that a successful flight experiment with TacSat-2 will open the door to additional military as well as NASA business , Roth said. NASA officials have told the company in the past that the agency’s tolerance for risk is lower than that of the Air Force Research Laboratory, he said. In particular, he said, NASA officials expressed a reluctance to fly hardware that does not have any flight heritage, he said.