As the U.S. military begins experimenting with small satellites designed to be responsive to the emerging needs of commanders on the battlefield, it will need new ground capabilities to take full advantage of the spacecraft.

Troops who use these satellites will need ground systems that more closely resemble unmanned aerial vehicle consoles than traditional satellite ground stations , according to Mike Hurley, program manager for operationally responsive space at the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington.

To that end, the Pentagon and NASA have been developing the Virtual Mission Operations Center (VMOC), which will be used when the military begins experimenting with the TacSat series of spacecraft later this year, Hurley said in a Jan. 16 interview. The work originated at NASA as part of an effort to improve spacecraft integration testing, he said.

The TacSat satellites are intended to pave the way for a new generation of satellites that can be launched on short notice to meet the emerging needs of military commanders, who also would determine the satellites’ collection priorities. Intelligence satellites today are launched on schedules that generally are not responsive to emerging tactical requirements, and are tasked by officials far removed from the battlefield.

As envisioned, the VMOC — a secure online portal — would make data from a variety of small satellites accessible to troops in the field, enabling them to collaborate more closely , according to U.S. Navy Cmdr. Greg Glaros, a transformation strategist in the Pentagon’s Office of Force Transformation, which is based in Arlington, Va. The VMOC also would ingest and display data from sensors based at sea, on the ground and in the air, he said.

Troops will need only a basic computer to access the portal, which means the data will be directly and readily available inside the High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicles known as Humvees , aboard small ships and even individuals with handheld terminals, Glaros said in a Jan. 17 interview. . The VMOC is being developed primarily with mobile forces in mind, though it would still be useful to officials in fixed command centers who already receive a significant amount of satellite data, Hurley said.

Once logged in to the VMOC, users will be able to task systems like the TacSat satellites, receive imagery and other data, and make notations directly on pictures or through a hypertext link to aid in battle planning, Glaros said. Even commanders who have not tasked a satellite can have access to the data, contributing to what Glaros called the “mosaic” of information .

In many cases, data from various sources that feed into the VMOC can be synthesized to provide more useful products, Glaros said. For example, a satellite image might show the locations of bridges, but soldiers on the ground could contribute information on the bridges’ conditions that might not otherwise be noted, he said.

Users can overlay relevant information on satellite images through a VMOC portal without going through the normal chain of command, Hurley said. Some screening of inputs would be required, but with this feature, the value of imagery posted on the VMOC could increase with the volume of users, he said.

The collaborative aspect of the VMOC might be its most militarily useful feature, Hurley said. While new visualization technology such as software that enables 3D modeling of battlefield operations has attracted considerable attention in Iraq, Hurley said feedback he has received indicates that troops and commanders are even more enamored with chat room-type communications capabilities.

Military chat-room participants in many cases are close enough to the action that they can contribute relevant information not found in intelligence briefings, Hurley said.

The VMOC is expected to play a major role as the military begins experimenting with TacSat-1 later this year, and hopefully other TacSat spacecraft in the years to come, Hurley said.

Among the upcoming demonstrations involving the VMOC is this year’s planned Wolf PAC/Stiletto Distributed Operations Experiment , which will feature a prototype high-speed ship designed to operate in shallow waters and be highly reconfigurable, Glaros said. Troops on the ships will use the VMOC tap into TacSat-1 and other data sources as part of that experiment, he said.

Other demonstrations featuring the VMOC could emphasize missions such as homeland security and disaster relief, Hurley said.