Raytheon (News - Alert) has won a $1.5 million contract from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to design a set of small, low-cost satellites that can be rapidly launched to provide on-demand imagery directly to military forces.
Under the first phase of the Space Enabled Effects for Military Engagements (SeeMe) program, Raytheon will work with Sierra Nevada Corporation, University of Arizona and SRI (News - Alert) International to assist with design work and production. Next year, in phase two of the program, the Raytheon team will build six satellites for ground testing.
The current generation of military “spy” imaging satellites are very expensive and strictly managed assets. A field commander deployed overseas can't simply request images from a laptop computer due to scheduling and security concerns and it may be a day or so before there's even a satellite in the proper position.
DARPA wants to change all that, with the ability to deliver imagery down to the squad level anywhere in the world, cutting out red tape and delays in obtaining imagery.
“We envision a constellation of small satellites, at a fraction of the cost of airborne systems, that would allow deployed warfighters overseas to hit ‘see me’ on existing handheld devices and in less than 90 minutes receive a satellite image of their precise location to aid in mission planning,” said Dave Barnhart, DARPA program manager. “To create inexpensive, easily manufacturable small satellites costing $500K apiece will require leveraging existing non-traditional aerospace off-the-shelf technologies for rapid manufacturing, such as the mobile phone industry’s original design manufacturers, as well as developing advanced technologies for optics, power, propulsion and communications to keep size and weight down.”
SeeMe may consist of up to two dozen low-flying satellites, enabling coverage of any spot on the Earth within 90 minutes. The constellation would be launched as needed, with the satellites lasting up to 60 to 90 days before de-orbiting and completely burning up to leave no space debris or hazard to anyone on the ground.
DARPA would like to be able to launch the small satellites using low-cost launchers such as an aircraft-launched system to quickly put 100 pound payloads into any orbit necessary without the need for a fixed launch site.
Raytheon believes it can crank out the small lightweight satellites on its existing missile assembly lines. It already builds something similar with its Exoatmosphere Kill Vehicle (EKV) designed to intercept ballistic missiles. The EKV is designed to use an IR sensor to home in on an incoming missile and crash into it high in the Earth's atmosphere. If you build a satellite around the EKV design, it would need some solar cells, a visible light sensor and enough communications bandwidth to download images.
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Edited by Rachel Ramsey