EL SEGUNDO, Calif. – Millennium Space Systems announced the handoff April 13 of the Tetra-1 small satellite to the U.S. Space Force Space Systems Command for the start of mission operations.
The experimental satellite designed to perform a variety of missions launched in November on a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket. Since then, all satellite components and subsystems have been checked out in a high geostationary orbit called super GEO.
“Tetra-1 has helped us learn about small satellites’ potential to operate in super GEO,” Capt. JeanCarlo Vasquez, SSC’s Tetra-1 deputy program manager, said in a statement. “Due to Tetra-1’s maneuverability, it has enabled us to experiment and train with various tactics, techniques and procedures. Thus, allowing our program office and operators to identify what roles small satellites can potentially play in future USSF Missions. Furthermore, Tetra-1’s robustness permitted SSC to work with Space Delta 11 in Space Training and Readiness Command and perform maneuvers dedicated solely to a live on-orbit training campaign, known as ‘Scarlet Star.’”
Space Delta 11 supports the U.S. Space Force by providing realistic testing and training in environments designed to simulate current threats.
Geosynchronous satellites operate at altitudes of about 35,786 meters. When those satellites are no longer in service, they often raise their orbits by 300 kilometers or more to reach a graveyard orbit.
Super GEO satellites operate at around 38,000 kilometers, a location that poses both “known and unknown challenges,” according to the Millennium news release.
“We developed new operations tools to ease the planning for actions like station changes and planning and executing on-orbit maneuvering,” Mike Todaro, Millennium vice president of mission operations and integration, said in a statement. “This is particularly important for super GEO, where if you’re not mission capable, you’re considered in the graveyard.”
Millennium, a Boeing subsidiary, and SSC have said little about what missions Tetra-1 will test. Super GEO, though, would be an excellent vantage point for space domain awareness given the prevalence of counterspace activity in the geostationary belt and the critical role of satellites in military operations.
Advantages and Challenges
“When Guardians work on Tetra-1, they’ll learn new ways of doing things that were previously done on much larger satellites,” Todaro said in a statement. “Because Tetra-1 is smaller, more agile and maneuverable, you have different options. It’s like the difference between maneuvering a speed boat versus a cruise ship.”
Small satellites also pose challenges. As a result, Millennium delivered the Tetra-1 spacecraft and ground software to SSC to operate independently. In addition, Millennium provided training, simulation and confidence-building tools specifically designed for small satellite operations.
“Actions for what you want the satellite to do are taken more deliberately because it has a smaller power system,” Todaro said. “And operators must manage consumables differently compared to a larger satellite, all of which requires training beyond just having classroom knowledge – it takes hands-on experience.”
The Tetra-1 satellite was designed and built rapidly. Millennium delivered the Tetra-1 satellite to SSC 13 months after winning the award through the SSC Space Enterprise Consortium’s other transaction authority, Millennium CEO Jason Kim said during an April 12 press briefing.
Correction: Tetra-1 is a small satellite. An earlier version of this article incorrectly referred to Tetra-1 as a microsatellite.