DOD to launch mini-satellites

The Defense Department will launch a small, relatively inexpensive experimental tactical satellite capable of supporting specific missions early next year.

The move marks a decided shift from the old process of buying large satellite systems intended to serve multiple purposes and last for years or decades. Instead, TacSat-1 will proceed from the official go-ahead to launch in about nine months for a total cost of $15 million.

Retired Navy Vice Adm. Arthur Cebrowski, DOD's director of force transformation, announced the program this week as a way to move forward on the military's development of on-demand space assets.

"Over the last two years, there were 38 [microsatellite] launches around the world," Cebrowski said. "How many did the United States launch? Zero. This is a very, very important market segment, and we can move into this and do very, very well."

The project will be a combined experiment among the Navy, Air Force and private industry. Cebrowski said the plan is to accomplish all steps — designing and building the satellite, putting it on a rocket, launching it and having it send data — within the timelines for planning a major military contingency.

"We're talking about space capabilities in weeks and months, not in decades," he said.

TacSat-1 will be a sensor satellite --not used specifically for imagery or voice and data communications. It will, however, use an infrared camera and new thermal imaging technology, according to information from the Force Transformation Office. The system will have a Secret Internet Protocol Router Network address, so battlefield commanders could access the satellite's sensor data through DOD's classified network.

Peter Teets, undersecretary of the Air Force and DOD's executive for space, said the program has great potential, but cautioned that it's important "to focus on capabilities and effects, not specifically design requirements."

"Small sats, microsats, have a role to play, there's no doubt about it," Teets said. "We shouldn't be saying, 'Let's design small sats because they're small.' We should say, 'Small sats have a particularly advantageous capability that serves some effect that we want to achieve.' "

The first TacSat satellite, launched in 1969, was two stories tall, had little computing power and was expensive. The latest version, according to Cebrowski, will be 20 inches high, 41 inches in diameter and much cheaper than the original.

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