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U.S. Army Pursues Nanosats and Microlaunchers on a Shoestring

Satellite Technology

Satellite Technology Feature Article

October 29, 2010

U.S. Army Pursues Nanosats and Microlaunchers on a Shoestring

By Doug Mohney, Contributing Editor

Far away from Washington D.C., in the shadow of NASA's Huntsville Saturn 5, the U.S. Army Space & Missile Defense Command is working on small, cheap nanosatellites for communications and imagery and an equally low-cost way to put them into orbit quickly. It's a radical break from the past, but the Army wants rapidly responsive and flexible assets that it can launch on short notice to support warfighting, peacekeeping, and humanitarian operations -- and cheap enough to be essentially "throwaways."

The U.S. Army Space and Missile Defense Command/U.S. Army Forces Strategic Command (SMDC/ARSTRAT) Technical Center (TC) has two nanosatellite projects in the works. The SMDC-ONE communications relay satellite weighs in at less than 10 pounds and measures 4 by 4 by 13 inches in size, with the first 8 satellites produced in less than a year and purchased at a cost of under one million dollars each -- accounting noise compared to the price of a single dedicated geostationary communications satellite. Integrating, testing, and prepping a satellite for launch is expected to be in the $150,000 to $200,000 range, but program managers believe that a large scale production run would drive the cost per satellite to under $400,000 per unit.

Designed to launched into low earth orbit, an SMDC-ONE is designed to be an orbital data relay, receiving data from a ground terminal and relaying it to a ground station. Multiple SMDC-ONE satellites would be placed into orbit in a swarm to augment communications coverage.

Since SMDC hardware is so cheap and building them is simplified, upgrades for future generations include on-board GPS capability for greater on-board autonomy, addition of a faster radio link, a software-defined radio and decreasing the volume of the communications package for more flexibility in packaging.

Kestrel Eye, TC's second nanosatellite demonstrator, is a bit bigger and costs a little more, but should be able to deliver imagery with 1.5 meter resolution. It will also have the ability to be directly tasked from the field -- no intermediate bureaucracy -- and send back images during the same satellite pass within a 10 minute cycle. A laptop-based Kestrel Eye field station makes it as easy as point, drag, and click to designate where imagery will be taken -- pull up a world map map illustrating where the satellite will be going, highlight objects of interest on the map along the flight past, click to "Send to Spacecraft" and wait for the images to be taken and downloaded.  Images will be stored on a central server so other (friendly) users in the area can look at the imagery as well.

Weighing in at around 30 pounds,  Kestrel Eye and an SMDC-ONE are scheduled to catch a free ride to orbit on a Space X Falcon 1e flight from Kwajalein sometime in 2011, but TC is already looking at ways to launch its nanosatellite cheaper and faster than a $11 million commercial launcher that requires liquid oxygen and the associated support structures for handling the fuel.   The Multipurpose NanoMissile System is designed to be a low-cost launcher using a bi-propellant ethane and nitrous oxide core stage supplemented by multiple strap-on surplus/end-of-life MLRS and ATACMS artillery rockets. Estimated cost to put a 20 pound payload into LEO is around $1 million dollars -- and the Army saves money by not having to demilitarize (i.e. chop up) the surplus rockets!

Doug Mohney is a contributing editor for TMCnet and a 20-year veteran of the ICT space. To read more of his articles, please visit columnist page.

Edited by Chris DiMarco

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