WASHINGTON — After a 50-year hiatus from satellite development, the U.S. Army has gotten back in the game with plans to launch several tiny satellites this September and next fall that will demonstrate communications and remote sensing capabilities, a service official said.
Enabled by electronics technology advances that allow more capability to be crammed into ever-smaller packages, the Army envisions one day building and operating its own satellites to support forces in the field, said John London, director of nanosatellite technology programs at Army Space and Missile Defense Command (SMDC) in Huntsville, Ala.
Under the SMDC-Operational Nanosatellite Effect (ONE) program, SMDC is developing several tiny communications satellites, the first of which is slated to launch Sept. 23 as a secondary payload on a Falcon 9 medium-lift rocket built by Space Exploration Technologies Corp. () of Hawthorne, Calif. The primary payload on that mission is SpaceX’s Dragon space logistics capsule, which along with Falcon 9 was developed with funding help via NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services program.
Two more ONE satellites are slated to fly next fall aboard SpaceX’s Falcon 1e small rocket. The primary payload on that mission is a larger experimental imaging craft, also built for the Army.
The last satellite developed by the Army was launched in October 1960; the Air Force and Navy have since built the vast majority of unclassified U.S. military satellites. The Army nonetheless has a need for tactical satellite capabilities that respond directly to the service’s tasking commands, London said in a July 29 interview.
“I think what’s opened the door for this is the advancement of technology,” London said. “When you look at the amount of power that can be put into something as small as a cell phone, the electronics revolution of the last 20 years has really opened the door to putting an enormous amount of power and capability into small packages. If you couple that with the development of cubesat technologies that really started in academia, we recognized there was an enormous opportunity to put capability into a very small package at very low cost.”
Cubesats are standardized satellite platforms that, as the name implies, are shaped like a small box measuring 10 centimeters on each side. Because of their low cost and small size — they are relatively easy to accommodate as secondary payloads — cubesats are increasingly popular not only with university researchers but also with government agencies. The September Falcon 9 launch, for example, also will carry two experimental cubesats for the U.S. National Reconnaissance Office, which is known for building very large spy satellites, and two for the U.S. Department of Energy’s Los Alamos National Laboratory.
SMDC began working on the ONE program in 2008, contracting with Miltec Missiles and Space of Huntsville to design and deliver 10 so-called 3U cubesats — three cubesats attached end to end — each about the size of a small loaf of bread. After one year of development, Miltec delivered two engineering models and eight flight-qualified satellites in April 2009, London said. The satellites cost about $700,000 apiece including research and development, and future copies could be much less expensive, he said.
The ONE satellites are designed to demonstrate a low-data-rate communications capability that could eventually be used to receive and transmit data from so-called friendly emitters such as unattended ground stations or cargo containers. In the experiment, the satellites will be used to send data back and forth between ground stations in Huntsville and Colorado Springs, Colo.
Two more ONE satellites are scheduled to launch next fall on the Falcon 1e. One will be a clone of the one slated to fly this September; the other will feature a new software defined radio payload being developed by the Pentagon’s Operationally Responsive Space (ORS) Office, London said.
The launch is being managed by the ORS Office and is called the ORS Enabler mission. It will be the first launch to feature a new payload adapter called the wafer, an aluminum disk that can carry up to eight 3U cubesats. Two wafers carrying as many as 16 payloads combined will be stacked between the rocket’s upper stage and its primary payload.
The primary payload on the ORS Enabler mission is SMDC’s experimental Kestrel Eye imaging satellite built by Maryland Aerospace of Crofton, Md. The 14-kilogram satellite will feature ground resolution of about 1.5 meters — meaning ground features that size and larger can be distinguished in its imagery — and it will be tasked to collect imagery and downlink it to users during the same orbital pass, London said.
“What Kestrel Eye brings to the table in our mind is not what this individual satellite will do, but if we’re successful in demonstrating its capability, it opens the door to the possibility of launching quantities of these satellites,” London said. “If you can put a lot of apertures on orbit, it starts to open up all kinds of possibilities for the warfighter on the ground to have near-persistent and potentially persistent ability to image targets that they need to see.”
SMDC also has plans for a second block of ONE satellites that would also be built by Miltec. The next-generation satellites will feature improvements including software defined radios, higher-frequency downlink antennas and reaction wheel-based pointing systems, London said.