U.S. Army Cubesat Completes Monthlong Demonstration; 2 More May Launch This Year

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WASHINGTON — A U.S. Army satellite about the size of a loaf of bread re-entered the atmosphere Jan. 12 following a monthlong demonstration that showed such tiny satellites can perform a number of low-data-rate communications missions for the military, service officials said Jan. 6.

The Huntsville, Ala.-based Army Space and Missile Defense Command (SMDC) hopes to launch two more of the tiny satellites this year, and it is soliciting information from industry to possibly develop larger satellites, John London, SMDC’s nanosatellite technology manager, said in an interview.

The last satellite built by the Army was launched in 1960. Since then, military spacecraft have been primarily the domain of the Air Force, Navy and National Reconnaissance Office.

SMDC started its Operational Nanosatellite Effect (ONE) program in 2008 because it wanted to determine if satellites costing only a few hundred thousand dollars apiece could provide militarily useful capabilities, London said.

SMDC contracted with Miltec Missiles and Space of Huntsville to develop and deliver two engineering unit spacecraft and eight flight-qualified spacecraft for about $7 million. The first of these so-called 3U cubesats was launched Dec. 8 as a secondary payload on a Falcon 9 rocket built by Space Exploration Technologies Corp.

The Army satellite was placed into an orbit with an apogee of about 300 kilometers, and engineers estimated it would circle the Earth for 26 to 34 days before re-entering the atmosphere and burning up. Operators at SMDC’s ground station in Huntsville picked up signals from the ONE spacecraft in its first pass over the city, some 90 minutes after launch, said Dave Weeks, the program’s chief engineer.

The satellite’s subsystems all functioned properly on orbit, and within several days the test program began. Text messages, images and other data were successfully transmitted back and forth between Huntsville and SMDC’s Battle Lab in Colorado Springs, Colo., achieving data rates as high as 10 megabits per second.

With the mission’s basic communications goals achieved, the team conducted experiments using the satellite as part of a system of virtual trip wires. Passive infrared sensors deployed around the SMDC campus in Huntsville sent signals to the satellite when they detected people or vehicles. The data were downlinked from the satellite to a ground station and then to users, who used a Google Maps interface to see when and where the sensors were tripped, Weeks said.

The Army currently has a similar capability in its deployed Scorpion system, but that system relies on satellite capacity purchased from Iridium Communications, and the data cannot be downlinked from the satellite directly into theater, Weeks said. With a constellation of these satellites costing as little as $300,000 apiece, the Army could deploy a more useful and cost-effective system, Weeks said.

“The satellite has operated beyond my wildest expectations,” London said. “We have achieved all of our goals that we had for the program, and we’ve even accomplished stretch goals on the program. … We believe we have in fact demonstrated militarily relevant capability with this class of satellite.”

The next two ONE satellites will be ready to launch in the fall, but it has not been decided how they will get to orbit, London said. One of the satellites is nearly identical to the first ONE spacecraft but still could be modified to make it compatible with the military’s widely deployed Harris PRC-117 radios. The other ONE satellite is expected to be upgraded with a software-defined radio being developed by the Pentagon’s Operationally Responsive Space Office. This feature would enable the satellite to be reconfigured on orbit to be used in any number of different experimental missions, London said.

SMDC also is working on a 14-kilogram optical imaging satellite that could launch this year. The spacecraft bus and electronics for the Kestrel Eye spacecraft are nearly complete, and the ITT Corp.-built payload is now the pacing item, London said. The satellite’s launch will be provided by the Air Force Space Test Program, which has prioritized the Kestrel Eye as one of its three most important payloads to launch, he said.

Meanwhile, the Army is preparing for what may be its next spacecraft development program. SMDC on Dec. 16 posted a request for information about 180-kilogram-class satellites on the Federal Business Opportunities website. A potential contractor would be required to develop the satellite, integrate government-provided payloads and arrange for launch services, the posting said. Responses were due Jan. 17.