BOSTON — Design work to be performed by three U.S. companies under Pentagon contracts awarded in February could pave the way for development of advanced small satellite payloads within the next several years, according to a U.S. Air Force official.

“Ball Aerospace and Technologies Corp. and Goodrich Corp. are designing experimental imaging sensors, while Assurance Technology Corp. is working on a communications payload concept,” according to Col. Thomas Doyne, an action officer for operational experimentation in the director of defense research and engineering’s Rapid Reaction Technology Office.

“The Ball and Assurance Technology contracts are worth about $4 million each,” Doyne said in a Feb. 14 interview. “Goodrich’s contract is worth about $1 million, but the company likely will receive additional funding later on,” he said.

The awards are intended to sow the technological seeds for future operationally responsive space payloads, Doyne said. The term refers to capabilities that can be launched on relatively short notice in response to the emerging needs of forces in the field. One of the Pentagon’s high-profile operationally responsive space efforts is TacSat, a series of low-cost demonstration satellites designed to give field commanders experience with direct access to space assets.

The TacSat program was hatched several years ago by the Pentagon’s now-defunct Office of Force Transformation. TacSat now is the responsibility of the director of defense research and engineering and an Operationally Responsive Space Program Office to be established soon at Kirtland Air Force Base, N.M.

The Pentagon launched its first experimental TacSat in December, and could begin deploying operational versions in the next several years, Doyne said. Planning for the first such mission is expected to begin once the Operationally Responsive Space Program Office is up and running, he said.

Congress directed the Pentagon to create a responsive space technology incubator in 2005, and provided $17 million in 2006 and 2007 for related research efforts. Doyle said the Pentagon did not request funding for the incubator in 2008, and declined to speculate on whether Congress would again add money for the effort.

For their part, congressional aides said the incubator program is an essential element of the science and technology work necessary to make responsive space a reality. They said they likely would encourage the Air Force to fund the incubator out of its proposed $87 million budget for operationally responsive space work in 2008.

Technology developed under the three contracts could appear several years from now on TacSat satellites, Doyne said. The companies are developing prototype hardware rather than flight-ready payloads, he said.

Ball Aerospace of Boulder, Colo., is working on an L-band radar imaging sensor that is small and inexpensive enough to fly on a TacSat-type platform, Doyne said.

Goodrich of Charlotte, N.C., is working to modify an electro-optical/infrared sensor suite, originally developed for U2 intelligence aircraft, for space applications . One advantage of adapting an airborne sensor rather than building one from scratch is that troops already have experience receiving, processing and using the data, Doyne said.

Assurance Technology Corp. of Carlisle, Mass., is working on a ground-reprogrammable digital radio frequency payload, Doyne said. The idea is for ground troops to be able to quickly render the satellite compatible with whatever communications terminals they happen to have, he said.

This type of communications payload likely would fly aboard a spacecraft in an elliptical orbit designed to maximize its accessibility to ground forces in a given area, Doyne said. The TacSat 4 satellite will operate in an elliptical orbit, and one of its objectives is to help engineers design low-cost payloads that can withstand that high-radiation environment, he said.

The Pentagon this past fall made two separate rounds of awards for development of technologies that could find their way aboard future operationally responsive space systems, Doyne said. One round consisted of four contracts collectively worth $5 million; the other involved seven component-development awards worth a total of $2.5 million, he said.

Work to be performed under these contracts includes development of standardized interfaces and hardware that could easily be used on a variety of satellite platforms, Doyne said.