Defense plans smaller, cheaper satellites

BOSTON — The Defense Department plans to launch a small, relatively cheap, experimental tactical satellite capable of supporting specific missions early next year.

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

Retired Navy Vice Adm. Arthur Cebrowski, DOD's director of force transformation, announced the program this week as the way forward for 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."

Power per kilogram in orbit is going way up because of the trends in information technology processing capacity. But cost per kilogram in orbit is "terrible and it isn't getting any better," he said, speaking here at the Military Communications Conference 2003.

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 the planning of a major military contingency.

"We're talking about space capabilities in weeks and months, not in decades," Cebrowski said. "We're talking about customized space capabilities, as opposed to having to predict the future, because it's going to take us 10 years to get a system in orbit and then hope that it addresses" the military's needs.

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 Office of Force Transformation. The system will have a Secret Internet Protocol Router Network address, so battlefield commanders could potentially access the satellite's sensor data through DOD's classified network.

Cebrowski emphasized that TacSat-1 is experimental, but he hopes it will be the first in a series.

"Our role is to craft the experiment, create the opportunity for others to experiment and see what happens," he said. "We appreciate the enthusiasm with which this experiment is being driven."

The Naval Research Laboratory is the project manager and designer of the satellite; a commercial company, Space Exploration Technologies Corp. in El Segundo, Calif., is building the launcher; the Air Force will launch the satellite from Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif.; and U.S. Strategic Command will handle command and control operations.

The Air Force Research Laboratory at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, is working on TacSat-2, but no details on that program were immediately available.

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

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