— With development work on its first operational satellite well under way, the U.S. Defense Department’s Operationally Responsive Space (ORS) Office has begun planning its next mission, which likely will involve a lightweight imaging radar launched atop one of multiple small launchers to be procured within the next two years.

Peter Wegner, director of the ORS office, said he has a team studying the different user needs for a small, tactical radar imaging capability and whether the technology is mature enough to employ in the operational ORS-2 satellite. The office will move at an aggressive pace over the next five months to get an acquisition strategy in place and approved so it can award contracts as early as October, he said.

The ORS Office, established two years ago to develop low-cost space capabilities that can be deployed rapidly in response to emerging military needs, is involved with two distinct series of satellites: the TacSat series of experimental spacecraft, and the ORS series of operational spacecraft. TacSat-3, developed by the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory, is slated to launch in early May and will be the second in the series to be demonstrated on orbit. The ORS-1 satellite, scheduled to launch in late 2010, will collect reconnaissance data using a modified version of an optical sensor developed by Goodrich ISR Systems of Danbury, Conn., for the U-2 spy plane. The ORS Office led a government team that successfully completed an end-to-end preliminary design review of the satellite March 25, Wegner said in an April 20 interview.

A space-based radar capability is prized by the Defense Department for its ability to produce imagery during the day or night, regardless of weather conditions. After the cancellation of the Air Force’s multibillion-dollar Space Radar program last year, the Pentagon began studying satellite radar alternatives; one possibility is buying data from non-U.S. operators, but no plans have yet been announced.

government-industry teams, meanwhile, are designing synthetic aperture radar (SAR) sensors that are much smaller than those flying today on spacecraft like
‘s Radarsat-2 and
‘s SAR-Lupe system. The Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory along with the U.S. Navy and Raytheon Space and Airborne Systems Co. of El Segundo, Calif., pioneered the technology on two instruments: The first 13-kilogram Mini-SAR instrument is orbiting the Moon on India’s Chandrayaan-1 spacecraft; a second, more-advanced version will fly on NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, slated to launch this summer. The Applied Physics Laboratory of Laurel, Md., is also working with Northrop Grumman Electronic Systems of Baltimore on a miniature SAR design based on a different technology.

If plans for an ORS-2 craft featuring a miniature SAR sensor move forward, it would be designed in such a way that the military services could build clones of the satellite for no more than $40 million, in line with stated ORS goals, Wegner said. The satellite would also have a size and weight low enough to launch on a Minotaur 1 rocket. Minotaur is a family of solid-fueled rockets that incorporate excess missile hardware. The ORS Office last year bought a block of the vehicles from Orbital Sciences Corp., of Dulles, Va., that will launch TacSat-3, TacSat-4 and ORS-1. For ORS-2 and subsequent satellites, the office likely will buy another block of rockets around a year and a half from now; this could be another batch of Minotaurs or variants of the Falcon-1 rocket built by Space Exploration Technologies of Hawthorne, Calif., Wegner said.

Meanwhile, the ORS Office is in the early stages of standing up a Rapid Reaction Spaceworks facility, nicknamed Chile Works for its
, location. The office received more than 30 responses from industry to a request for information about possible spacecraft development, integration and testing services, and other Defense Department agencies and NASA also have expressed interest in participating. The office now is close to finalizing a strategy for Chile Works and hopes to have initial contracts in place this fall.

Wegner has been leading the ORS Office for a year. Aside from the satellite programs it has worked to develop, perhaps the office’s most significant accomplishment in the past year has been winning converts to the ORS concept, Wegner said.

“When I started a year ago there was still a lot of confusion about what ORS is and whether we even really need the ability to rapidly reconstitute satellite constellations,” he said. “I don’t know if it was me or anyone in the office that convinced people that it was necessary, but the old guard has become convinced that it’s important for the nation to have this kind of capability.

“We’ve been helped along a great deal by the Iranians launching their own satellite, by North Korea building a satellite launcher – whether it was or not – and the collision of the Iridium satellite.”