Company officials insist that buying a heritage satellite with enough frequency will pay off. Today's DMSP constellation consists of two larger main satellites in orbit; it is augmented by four legacy satellites that still provide some limited capability, according to Air Force procurement officials.
Economies of scale can be garnered with a “block” buy as low as five satellites, says Glen Cameron, business development director of space missions for ATK's defense sector. “There would be frequency and military enough [among the satellites bought] to keep the bus a commodity,” he says. In building five Themis (Time, History of Events and Macroscale Interactions during Substorms) satellites for NASA, ATK was able to significantly reduce the cost of the fifth satellite, thanks to an efficient production line. Today's military satellites, such as the Lockheed Martin Advanced Extremely High Frequency or Space-Based Infrared System, are build in fits and starts, making it hard to establish a production cadence.
For Themis, ATK was able to reduce by 20% the labor needed between the first and fifth satellites, says James Armor, a space division vice president.
Perhaps more critical to disaggregation than the platform, though, would be how the future payloads would be linked, or networked, in space and to users on the ground. ATK is also studying how to construct such an infrastructure. Ultimately, the goal is to send data directly from any one node to another via a network, Cameron says. Today's DMSP system relies on dedicated ground infrastructure and user equipment from which to distribute the data.
Cameron says ATK has been working on concepts to craft such an architecture and is merely tailoring that legacy work to this application. The goal, he says, is to rely on existing user interfaces and merely display the appropriate weather data on them rather than procure new user equipment.
“The net-centric data dissemination study will explore an alternative data dissemination architecture to reduce mission data latency and long-term operations cost,” USAF officials say.
The tricky part, however, is to ensure this new architecture is backward-compatible to the old system now interfacing with DMSP satellites, according to Cameron.
By year-end, ATK plans to demonstrate the use of existing facilities and commercial capabilities to show the “flow” of data from simulated weather sensors, Cameron says.
Meanwhile, last month the Air Force also issued a study contract to the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory to develop a low-cost, lightweight multispectral imaging system. The service expects to eventually flight-test this sensor on an aircraft.
More study contracts are to be awarded by mid-March, USAF officials say.