The U.S. Army is working on a batch of tiny satellites that it hopes to have ready for launch early next year to augment the Pentagon’s satellite communications fleet, according to service officials.
Those satellites could play a role in military operations following an initial check-out period, according to James Lee, chief of strategy, policy and mission area integration at Army Space and Missile Defense Command (SMDC) in Huntsville, Ala.
SMDC began the planning process for the effort, known as SMDC-Operational Nanosatellite Effect (ONE), in early March after its commander, Lt. Gen. Kevin Campbell, asked for a campaign plan for the command’s role in the Pentagon’s Operationally Responsive Space effort, Lee said in an April 22 interview. Augmenting beyond line-of-sight communications coverage was identified as an urgent need for troops in the field, he said.
During an April 10 speech at the National Space Symposium in Colorado Springs, Colo., Campbell said he believes the nanosatellites could offer “some key capabilities” for troops involved with “real-world” missions.
“I think it will bear some fruit, and I’ve told my team that when we look at [Operationally Responsive Space], and we look at our own work in terms of responsive space, the bottom line metric of merit is, what are we delivering to the joint force commander?” Campbell said. “And if we get our eyes off that picture, I think we have to go back and recalibrate what we’re doing.”
The command is using resources under an existing contract with Miltec Missiles and Space Co. of Huntsville, which has built sensors and missiles though not satellites, Lee said.
Ivy Pinion, senior vice president at Miltec Corp., deferred to SMDC for comment on the SMDC-ONE effort.
Each satellite likely will weigh 3 to 5 kilograms, and cost about $250,000, Lee said. They likely would have a lifetime of about a year on orbit, he said.
However, the satellites themselves are not the only part of the SMDC-One effort, Lee said. The effort ties together various offices throughout SMDC for work including the development of ground systems, command and control, operational concept and training, he said.
If the nanosatellites are launched successfully, it would be the first time that the Army has put up a satellite in several decades. The service’s
past work in this area includes Explorer-1, the first U.S.-built satellite, which launched in January, 1958; Project Score, the military’s first communications satellite, which followed in December 1958; and Courier 1B, which launched in October 1960.
In addition to the capability envisioned from the nanosatellites, learning is a key goal of the SMDC-ONE effort, Lee said.
SMDC plans to have personnel shadowing the staff at Miltec during the hardware construction, and may build
two of the satellites itself, Lee said. Having its personnel working closely with counterparts at Miltec could sharpen their skills and enable them to build satellites in-house for SMDC in the future if the command’s leadership elected to go in that direction, he said.
The command would not need extensive new facilities to build nanosatellites, Lee said.
The command has embarked on the SMDC-ONE program with the understanding that a small constellation of nanosatellites will not offer the type of 24-hour, persistent capability that comes from the fleets of standard-sized satellites operated by the military and commercial communications service providers in geostationary orbit, Lee said.
However, using eight satellites in a low Earth orbit can augment those existing assets to provide some useful coverage to users not currently served by the other systems, Lee said. SMDC is working with users to determine the type of communications band to use with the satellites’ payloads, he said.
Also under discussion is how the nanosatellites will reach space. SMDC is conducting discussions with the Operationally Responsive Space program office at Kirtland Air Force Base in New Mexico about finding a ride for them, Lee said.
While SMDC is currently focused on SMDC-ONE, possible future work could involve using a modular nanosatellite platform that could accommodate a variety of sensors, Lee said