February 25, 2013
Pentagon officials have espoused the lofty goal of “disaggregating” massive satellites—breaking their capabilities up into smaller but more numerous spacecraft—as a way to save millions of dollars in the costly military satellite arena.
Despite the rhetoric, they haven't yet put their money where their mouth is. But that could be changing.
The dissolution of the joint Defense/Commerce Department weather satellite project, the National Polar-Orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite Systems (Npoess), combined with fiscal pressure as the government looks to reduce the national deficit, could provide the perfect backdrop for the disaggregation concept to culminate in an actual military satellite program.
After the demise of Npoess in 2010, the Pentagon and the Commerce Department agreed to part ways and develop not a single satellite capable of satisfying both of their missions, but separate purpose-built constellations for their specific needs.
Air Force officials have begun studying concepts for the defense weather satellite constellation post-Npoess. Because two legacy Defense Meteorological Satellite Program (DMSP) satellites remain ready for launch, Air Force space officials have time on their side.
This summer, the service is expected to wrap up an analysis of alternatives (AOA) for specific capabilities needed from a future weather constellation; the study began in October 2012. Historically, the Air Force's DMSP has provided electro-optical, microwave and space weather-sensing, according to Air Force procurement officials.
In parallel with the AOA, USAF issued a one-year study contract to Alliant Techsystems (ATK) to examine two pieces of what could be a future disaggregated architecture. First is the use of an existing, common, small satellite bus as the platform on which to fly a future sensor payload. USAF says the use of several small spacecraft could be more affordable than building a small number of larger satellites.