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Report Readied on Options for ‘TacSat-4-like’ Small Satellites

TacSat-4, which weighs 450 kilograms, has "demonstrated a low, [highly elliptical orbit] small satellite can provide military utility," said Bill Raynor, Navy TacSat-4 program manager. Credit: U.S. Naval Research Laboratory photo

WASHINGTON — Future options for “TacSat-4-like” small satellites will be outlined in a U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) report scheduled to be finalized in mid-December, according to a program official.

DoD already has launched four Tactical Microsatellites (TacSats) to test new space capabilities. The most recent, the TacSat-4 UHF communications satellite, lifted off in September 2011.

The upcoming report, which the Naval Research Laboratory is preparing for DoD’s Operationally Responsive Space Office, will assess the future utility of such systems, said Navy TacSat-4 program manager Bill Raynor, who spoke Nov. 9 at a small-satellite conference in Washington. Raynor hinted at one possible conclusion: Any future spacecraft would be designed differently than TacSat-4.

“If you were to fly a TacSat-like mission, I dare say that it would not look like TacSat-4,” he said. “To start, we’d probably have two smaller antennas rather than one large, 12-foot [3.6-meter] dish. It helps considerably with packaging, making it much easier to launch multiple satellites on a single launch.”

During its time on orbit, TacSat-4 has participated in U.S. and Canadian sea exercises and helped the U.S. Coast Guard communicate with an icebreaker supporting a wintertime natural gas delivery to remote Nome, Alaska, Raynor said. In addition, the TacSat-4 program provided a portable ground terminal to a Coast Guard station in Kodiak, Alaska, to help the maritime service communicate in and around Alaska.

TacSat-4, which weighs 450 kilograms, has “demonstrated that a low, [highly elliptical orbit] small satellite can provide military utility,” he said.

Controlled from the Army’s Blossom Point Research Facility in southern Maryland, the satellite is on track to meet or exceed its three-year design life requirement, “so we still have two-plus years of life remaining,” Raynor told the first International Symposium on Small Satellites for Arctic and Maritime Operations and Research.

Other small sats

Symposium speakers also highlighted the near-term potential for other small satellites to improve such things as environmental monitoring and maritime safety.

For vessel tracking, Fort Lee, N.J.-based Orbcomm, which has two Automatic Identification Service (AIS) satellites on orbit, plans to launch 18 more satellites by 2014, all of which will have AIS receivers. Eight of those will be launched on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket in mid-2013, said Greg Flessate, Orbcomm vice president for government and maritime.

Ontario, Canada-based exactEarth, which has four AIS satellites on orbit, is preparing to deploy four more by 2014, said Chandler Smith, vice president of Com Dev USA, exactEarth’s U.S. distributor.

For both companies, having more satellites on orbit is expected to yield better coverage.

PolarCube, which weighs about 4 kilograms, is being built by students at the University of Colorado in Boulder to study the Arctic’s atmosphere and rapidly melting ice. The prototype spacecraft is expected to launch on a NASA rocket in late 2013 or early 2014 and have a design life of about a year, said geoscientist David Gallaher, technical services manager at the university’s National Snow and Ice Data Center.

Gallaher hopes to eventually field a fleet of such spacecraft to provide real-time monitoring of the region, where harsh weather and limited ground-based infrastructure can inhibit nonspace platforms.

SpaceQuest Ltd. of Fairfax, Va., is exploring the possibility of fielding small satellites to identify pollution sources in the Arctic. The region’s sea-ice decline has opened the door to expanded shipping and oil and gas exploration, increasing the potential for harmful emissions into the air and sea, said Dino Lorenzini, the company’s president.

The Arctic has vast amounts of untapped natural resources: 13 percent of the world’s undiscovered oil, 30 percent of the undiscovered gas, and $2 trillion worth of gold, nickel, zinc and other minerals, said John Oliver, Coast Guard senior ocean policy adviser.

Martin Kress, executive director of the Von Braun Center for Science and Innovation in Huntsville, Ala., said he hopes to launch a 180-kilogram Arctic Region Communications Small Satellite, or ARC-Sat, to improve communications, search and rescue, data extraction and ship identification in the Arctic. The spacecraft would consist of a mothership and four cubesats flying in formation. The mothership is the size of a dishwasher and each cubesat is the size of a loaf of bread.

The polar region could also soon get a boost from the DoD-funded Arctic Collaborative Environment program, which integrates Arctic-focused remote sensing data into a Web-based tool. The program plans to conduct an operational demonstration in February, said Kress, whose center is part of the team.

DoD already has launched four Tactical Microsatellites (TacSats) to test new space capabilities. The most recent, the TacSat-4 UHF communications satellite, lifted off in September 2011.

The upcoming report, which the Naval Research Laboratory is preparing for DoD’s Operationally Responsive Space Office, will assess the future utility of such systems, said Navy TacSat-4 program manager Bill Raynor, who spoke Nov. 9 at a small-satellite conference in Washington. Raynor hinted at one possible conclusion: Any future spacecraft would be designed differently than TacSat-4.

“If you were to fly a TacSat-like mission, I dare say that it would not look like TacSat-4,” he said. “To start, we’d probably have two smaller antennas rather than one large, 12-foot [3.6-meter] dish. It helps considerably with packaging, making it much easier to launch multiple satellites on a single launch.”

During its time on orbit, TacSat-4 has participated in U.S. and Canadian sea exercises and helped the U.S. Coast Guard communicate with an icebreaker supporting a wintertime natural gas delivery to remote Nome, Alaska, Raynor said. In addition, the TacSat-4 program provided a portable ground terminal to a Coast Guard station in Kodiak, Alaska, to help the maritime service communicate in and around Alaska.

TacSat-4, which weighs 450 kilograms, has “demonstrated that a low, [highly elliptical orbit] small satellite can provide military utility,” he said.

Controlled from the Army’s Blossom Point Research Facility in southern Maryland, the satellite is on track to meet or exceed its three-year design life requirement, “so we still have two-plus years of life remaining,” Raynor told the first International Symposium on Small Satellites for Arctic and Maritime Operations and Research.

Other small sats

Symposium speakers also highlighted the near-term potential for other small satellites to improve such things as environmental monitoring and maritime safety.

For vessel tracking, Fort Lee, N.J.-based Orbcomm, which has two Automatic Identification Service (AIS) satellites on orbit, plans to launch 18 more satellites by 2014, all of which will have AIS receivers. Eight of those will be launched on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket in mid-2013, said Greg Flessate, Orbcomm vice president for government and maritime.

Ontario, Canada-based exactEarth, which has four AIS satellites on orbit, is preparing to deploy four more by 2014, said Chandler Smith, vice president of Com Dev USA, exactEarth’s U.S. distributor.

For both companies, having more satellites on orbit is expected to yield better coverage.

PolarCube, which weighs about 4 kilograms, is being built by students at the University of Colorado in Boulder to study the Arctic’s atmosphere and rapidly melting ice. The prototype spacecraft is expected to launch on a NASA rocket in late 2013 or early 2014 and have a design life of about a year, said geoscientist David Gallaher, technical services manager at the university’s National Snow and Ice Data Center.

Gallaher hopes to eventually field a fleet of such spacecraft to provide real-time monitoring of the region, where harsh weather and limited ground-based infrastructure can inhibit nonspace platforms.

SpaceQuest Ltd. of Fairfax, Va., is exploring the possibility of fielding small satellites to identify pollution sources in the Arctic. The region’s sea-ice decline has opened the door to expanded shipping and oil and gas exploration, increasing the potential for harmful emissions into the air and sea, said Dino Lorenzini, the company’s president.

The Arctic has vast amounts of untapped natural resources: 13 percent of the world’s undiscovered oil, 30 percent of the undiscovered gas, and $2 trillion worth of gold, nickel, zinc and other minerals, said John Oliver, Coast Guard senior ocean policy adviser.

Martin Kress, executive director of the Von Braun Center for Science and Innovation in Huntsville, Ala., said he hopes to launch a 180-kilogram Arctic Region Communications Small Satellite, or ARC-Sat, to improve communications, search and rescue, data extraction and ship identification in the Arctic. The spacecraft would consist of a mothership and four cubesats flying in formation. The mothership is the size of a dishwasher and each cubesat is the size of a loaf of bread.

The polar region could also soon get a boost from the DoD-funded Arctic Collaborative Environment program, which integrates Arctic-focused remote sensing data into a Web-based tool. The program plans to conduct an operational demonstration in February, said Kress, whose center is part of the team.

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