SeeMe satellite coverage

DARPA plans small satellites that can provide images on-demand

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is continuing efforts to change the shape of satellite constellations with a plan for small, very-low orbiting satellites that will deliver on-demand imagery to warfighters in the field.

The Space Enabled Effects for Military Engagements (SeeMe) program is aiming to develop a constellation of up to 24 “disposable" satellites, each weighing less than 100 pounds, that would connect with handheld devices, DARPA said in an announcement. Warfighters could hit a "see me" button on the device and get a satellite image of their location in less than 90 minutes.

If successful, the SeeMe program would supply space-based tactical information to small squads or individual teams in remote locations, even beyond line-of-sight conditions, something that’s not possible with current military or commercial satellites, DARPA said.

DARPA contends that small, low-orbiting satellites would cost less than current satellite technology, and the SeeMe program also would not have any logistical overhead in the field, other than the handheld devices. The satellites could be launched from aircraft-based platform being developed under the agency’s Airborne Launch Assist Space Access program.

DARPA, which first announced its plans for SeeMe in March, recently awarded a $1.5 million contract to Raytheon to develop the first phase of the project.

Beyond what on-demand imagery could do for teams in the field, SeeMe marks another step in changing the way satellites are built, launched and operated. In April, DARPA announced plans for its F6 Program, which aims to develop clusters of small satellites, developed with open-source tools and communicating via a wireless network, that would operate as a single unit. DARPA said at the time that the clustered, or "disaggregated," components would help the satellites last longer by being easier to repair and adapt to new purposes.

And NASA also is going small with satellites, announcing plans in August for 4-inch square "PhoneSats" running on the Android operating system that could be used for Earth observations and, eventually, even lunar exploration. The space agency intends to keep the cost of a PhoneSat to $3,500.

DARPA also has programs working to develop ways to repair non-functioning satellites or retrieve their working components, and NASA is exploring a number of ideas for cleaning up the growing amount of space junk orbiting the Earth.

The programs for new, smaller satellites are under development and have yet to produce solid results, but it does appear that the days of heavyweight, 35-foot long satellites such as NASA’s UARS, which caused a bit of concern when it fell to Earth in September 2011, are numbered.

About the Author

Kevin McCaney is editor of Defense Systems. Follow him on Twitter: @KevinMcCaney.

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