August 27, 2012
Credit: Credit: U.S. ARMY
Amy Butler Huntsville, Ala.
The U.S. Army is making headway with plans to demonstrate the utility of nanosatellites and small, low-cost, mobile launchers to provide direct support to deployed forces. Such assets would bypass the traditional data processing and dissemination system located in the U.S.
Though the Army's budget for space systems pales in comparison to the Air Force's multibillion-dollar annual satellite and launcher procurement request, the former's small demonstration project could spark a much-needed roles-and-missions discussion about which service is best suited to provide tactical spaceborne capabilities for soldiers abroad. This focus by the Army on the utility of small satellites comes as the Air Force is pushing to close its Operationally Responsive Space office, which was designed to find ways to reduce cycle time for spacecraft, including an emphasis on smaller buses.
While the Army is aggressively pursuing a plan to showcase these tactical capabilities starting next year, the Air Force is taking a longer view of infusing small satellites into its architecture by studying ways to augment the traditional satellites now 23,000 mi. up in geosynchronous orbit with smaller, more agile systems in lower orbits.
If the Army's plan prevails, the Pentagon could take an approach similar to that used for tactical intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) aircraft in parsing out responsibilities between the two services, says Brig. Gen. Timothy Coffin, deputy commander for operations at the Army Space and Missile Defense Command here.
One way to divide the workload would be to allocate responsibility to the Air Force for larger constellations to serve the “global community,” Coffin suggests. The Army, by contrast, could step in and handle special-mission tactical requirements, which will often be on low-orbit satellites with a short life cycle. This model, he says, is akin to the way ISR responsibilities are apportioned, with the Air Force providing much of the strategic collection services from its fleets and relaying data back to massive ground station infrastructures for processing, while the Army handles more tactical requirements, with products going straight to soldiers on the ground.
The Pentagon is providing low-level funding for three Army advanced-concept technology demonstration initiatives: Kestrel Eye, a 15-kg, (33-lb.) 1-meter resolution electro-optical imaging nanosatellite; Snap, a beyond-line-of-sight communications satellite; and the Soldier-Warfighter Operationally Responsive Deployer for Space (Swords), a low-cost, mobile launcher capable of lofting a 25-kg payload 466 mi. into orbit.
Each is designed to maximize use of existing commercial parts and suppliers, avoiding costly unique design requirements. Kestral Eye is already built and will be launched within the next year, as will the Snap spacecraft, Coffin says. The total cost of building Kestrel Eye, which employs a legacy star-tracker payload, is about $1.5 million, assuming production of 10 units per year.