BOSTON — The U.S. Air Force launched an experimental satellite in December intended to lead toward the operational use of small satellites that can be launched on short notice and checked out quickly once on orbit, but has yet to begin using the primary sensors on that satellite more than two months after the launch, according to the service official overseeing the effort.
Neal Peck, TacSat-2 program manager at the Air Force Research Laboratory’s Space Vehicles Directorate in Albuquerque, N.M., said in a March 6 interview that the Air Force had not begun using the imager and signals intelligence payload aboard TacSat-2 because it had not received clearance to do so from the Office of the U.S. Secretary of Defense (OSD). The issue was sensitive, in part, Peck said, because the Air Force wanted to make sure there are no misperceptions that the satellite is being used for spying purposes.
However, Air Force Maj. Patrick Ryder, a spokesman for OSD, said March 9 that OSD has worked through the policy issues regarding TacSat-2, and that the only thing standing in the way of using those sensors is a technical issue regarding the satellite’s downlinks.
Program officials had been in contact with officials in the OSD regarding the policy issues for two years prior to the Dec. 16 launch of TacSat-2, Peck said during the March 6 telephone interview.
TacSat-2 is the first of a series of small, experimental military spacecraft that are intended to allow troops in the field to directly control a spacecraft to meet their own needs.
The imager on TacSat-2 is capable of taking color pictures that can distinguish objects as small as 1 meter in diameter. The signals intelligence payload is designed to demonstrate the ability to detect radio-wave emissions, and could be used in concert with a patrol aircraft to demonstrate the ability to locate enemy targets.
The spacecraft’s imager has been used to take a few pictures for calibration purposes, but that data was not disseminated; the signals intelligence payload has not been used at all, according to another Defense Department official.
The Air Force’s ability to begin using the main sensors on TacSat-2 got caught up in a debate between the tactical and intelligence communities, that Defense Department official said, noting that intelligence community officials believe that the space collection mission has historically been their purview, and should be governed under Title 50 of the U.S. code, the official said. Section 403 of Title 50, U.S. Code, gives authority to the Director of National Intelligence for the tasking, processing and dissemination of data from intelligence assets.
The intelligence community’s privacy concerns regarding TacSat-2’s sensors are strongest regarding their use over the United States, the Defense Department official said.
While officials from the office of the undersecretary of defense for intelligence have been in contact for a long time with officials from the undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics’ office for advanced systems and concepts regarding approval for the operation of the main instruments on TacSat-2, several factors caused the issue to remain on the back burner, the Defense Department official said.
TacSat-2 was originally expected to follow TacSat-1, which featured similar but less-capable instruments, the Defense Department official said. TacSat-1 could have blazed a bureaucratic trail with intelligence officials, who might have been more willing to sign off on the use of the less capable instruments, and then more comfortable doing so when TacSat-2 was launched, the Defense Department official said.
However, the launch of TacSat-1 has been delayed more than three years due to issues with the Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) Falcon 1 rocket that is scheduled to launch the small satellite. TacSat-1 was initially expected to launch in early 2004, with TacSat-2 slated for later that same year.
In addition to not gaining an early comfort level with TacSat-1, the repeated launch delays on both satellites may have caused officials within OSD and the intelligence community to pay less attention to the TacSats, and could have put the approval process needed to allow them to operate their main sensors on the backburner, according to the Defense Department official.
Intelligence community officials involved in the discussions have expressed concern that the Air Force lacks the experience that has been developed over the years within the intelligence community to safeguard privacy, the Defense Department official said.
The other 11 payloads on TacSat-2 have not aroused concern, and have been allowed to operate, because they include experiments intended to yield improvements in areas like data processing and transmission, solar arrays and spacecraft guidance, the Defense Department official said.
The TacSats are designed with a limited operational lifetime in order to save costs. TacSat was designed to have a lifetime on orbit of six to eight months, which could have put pressure on officials to resolve the approval issue quickly to avoid losing out on time to experiment with the satellite during Pentagon exercises in the spring and summer, the Defense Department official said.