US plan to fly small, rapidly deployable satellites faces scrutiny

Developing low-cost small, rapidly deployable tactical satellites is a US Department of Defense priority but the agency's ability to pull off such advancement faces a multitude of challenges.

That was the main conclusion of a report issued last week by the Government Accountability Office that noted that in fiscal year 2008 alone, DOD expects to spend over $22 billion dollars on space systems. Despite this investment, senior military commanders have reported shortfalls in tactical space capabilities in each recent major conflict over the past decade, the GAO said. The Defense Department is looking to small launch vehicles, unlike current systems, that could be launched in days, if not hours, and whose cost would better match the small budgets of experiments. The DoD and private industry are working to develop small, low cost, on-demand launch vehicles.

On the flip side however, the GAO also praised the DoD for some of the advances it has made in getting some of its low-cost efforts off the ground. For example, on the research and development side, DOD has launched one of its diminutive spacecraft known as TacSat satellites. TacSats are small experimental satellites intended to quickly provide a capability that meets an identified need-and has begun developing several others, the GAO said.

The current family of TacSats includes:

* TacSat 1

Status: In progress; satellite has been developed but not demonstrated.

* Description: The Naval Research Laboratory led a year-long effort to develop TacSat 1, at a cost of $23 million. TacSat 1 was completed in May 2004, but has yet to be demonstrated because of delays incurred with the development and testing of a low cost launch vehicle. Given the launch delay, the Naval Research Laboratory decided to add a new sensor-an automated identification system to support maritime missions. The new sensor and other new capabilities are estimated to cost $10.5 million.

* TacSat 2

Status: Complete; satellite developed and demonstrated in 2006 through 2007.

* Description: TacSat 2 development, led by the Air Force Research Laboratory, was completed in 29 months at a cost of $39 million. Its payload includes tactical imaging and radio frequency equipment, and an automated identification sensor. TacSat 2 was launched in December 2006 on a Minotaur I launch vehicle and participated in military exercises during the summer of 2007.

* TacSat 3

Status: In progress; satellite expected to be launched in August 2008.

* Description: The Air Force Research Laboratory is leading the effort to develop TacSat 3 which will provide the first implementation of selected bus standards. Its primary payload is a hyperspectral imager for tactical targeting of camouflaged and hard-to-detect targets. The cost is estimated to be $62.7 million, and the planned launch date is August 2008 on a Minotaur I launch vehicle.

* TacSat 4

Status: In progress; expected to be launched in September 2009.

* Description: The Naval Research Laboratory is leading the effort to develop TacSat 4, which will include equipment to demonstrate mobile data communications services, friendly forces tracking, and data relay from terrestrial sensor. It will also evaluate the DOD system bus standards effort in a realistic launch-and-flight operations environment. The cost is estimated to be $114 million, and the planned launch date is September 2009 on a Minotaur IV launch vehicle.

* TacSat 5

Status: In progress; launch date to be determined.

* Description: The Army Space and Missile Defense Center, the Joint ORS Office, the Air Force Research Laboratory, and Space and Missile Systems Center will lead the development of TacSat 5. Payload experiments have not been finalized. The cost and schedule are to be determined.

The GAO went on to say the DOD has also made progress in developing interface standards for satellite buses-the platform that provides power, altitude, temperature control, and other support to the satellite in space-and continued its sponsorship of efforts aimed at acquiring low cost launch vehicles.

Still despite this progress, the GAO concluded that it is too early to determine the overall success of these efforts because most are still in their initial phases.The GAO laid out the following challenges to continue successfully developing small spacecraft:

* With relatively modest resources, the Joint Operationally Responsive Space Office (ORS) that handles this program must quickly respond to the warfighter's urgent needs, including gaps in capabilities, as well as continue its longer-term research and development efforts that are necessary to help reduce the cost and time of future space acquisitions. The Joint ORS Office has a budget totaling about $646 million for fiscal years 2008 through 2013 and with no more than 20 government staff. These resources are relatively modest when compared with the resources provided major space programs. For example, the ORS fiscal year 2008 budget represents less than 12 percent of the budget of the Transformational Satellite Communications System program which is in the concept development phase, and staffing is about a quarter of that program's staff.

* According to the Air Force Research Laboratory, the average cost of a small satellite is about $87 million. This is substantially higher than the target acquisition cost of about $40 million for an integrated ORS satellite in the 2007 National Defense Authorization Act.

* As the office negotiates these priorities, it will need to coordinate its efforts with a broad array of programs and agencies in the science and technology, acquisition, and operational communities. Historically it has been difficult to transition programs initiated in the science and technology environment to the acquisition and operational environment.

* At this time, DOD lacks tools which would help the program office navigate within this environment-primarily, a plan that lays out how the office will direct its investments to meet current operational needs while at the same time pursuing innovative approaches and new technologies.

* While the Joint ORS Office's responsibilities are not the same as those of large, complex acquisition programs, it is expected to address urgent tactical needs that have not been met by the larger space programs. At this time, for example, the office has been asked to develop a solution to meet current communications shortfalls that cannot be met by the current Ultra High Frequency Follow-On satellite system.

* The current alternatives for launching the smaller satellites ranging in cost from about $21 million to $28 million Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle and Minotaur launch vehicles - do not meet DOD's low cost goal. DARPA expects its responsive launch capabilities, currently in development, will total about $5 million to produce-a significantly lower cost than that of current capabilities. However, in order to achieve the lower cost launch capability, DOD will have to continue to fund research beyond the $15.6 million already spent on advanced technology development, facilities, test-range and mission support, and program office support.

Low-cost satellites are all the rage it seems. NASA last week it would team with m2mi to develop very small satellites, called nanosats which weigh between 11 to 110lb, for the development of telecommunications and networking services in space. NASA says large groups of nanosatellites can be grouped in a constellation, that will be placed in low Earth orbit to offer new telecommunications and networking systems and services.NASA and m2mi will develop what they call fifth generation telecommunications and networking systems for TCP/IP-based networks and related services.

In November, NASA said it built a tiny, low-cost satellite it says will be ideal for adventure seekers or companies with high-tech space applications who need to get into space quickly and relatively inexpensively.

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