The Pentagon is working on crossing small satellites with disposable cameras to give ground troops anywhere in the world the ability to quickly take high-quality overhead selfies. These snapshots are not fodder for Facebook status updates from combat zones — rather the goal is to have the satellites beam pictures of the current tactical environment down to soldiers on the battlefield, virtually in real time.
The project by the Pentagon's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) will be a huge change for national security space systems. Reconnaissance satellites have traditionally been large, complex machines designed to satisfy Cold War requirements and stay in space for decades.
DARPA is the military's in-house mad scientist shop. They are the folks who helped bring us the internet, created the stealth fighter aircraft, and developed other badass futuristic military technologies. DARPA's Tactical Technologies Office (TTO) — whose job description is "to provide or prevent strategic and tactical surprise with very high-payoff, high-risk development of revolutionary new platforms" — is in charge of the selfies-from-space project, which is officially called SeeMe.
Basically, SeeMe — short for Space Enabled Effects for Military Engagements — involves launching a constellation of 24 satellites into orbit. Each will be about the size of a water cooler and will contain a 10-inch telescope for taking pictures. The program managers claim that soldiers around the world will be able to get updated high-resolution imagery of their locations within 90 minutes. On top of that, they will be able to bypass the sluggish traditional military command and bureaucracy and directly request images from their mobile communications devices or, eventually, their military smartphones.
The satellites won't be made to last, and instead will be placed into a very low orbit around the Earth. At that altitude, air particles in the upper atmosphere will act like a sandblaster, creating friction and gradually slowing down the satellites. After two to three months, the satellites will slow down enough that they will fall out of orbit and come burning back through the atmosphere, a plan that will do wonders to cut down on the space junk and orbital debris associated with most regular satellites. The size of the satellites means they should fully burn up in the atmosphere.
SeeMe has the potential to revolutionize military satellite imagery, and is part of an emerging trend in Department of Defense (DOD) space systems to switch to a series of smaller networked satellites instead of a single monster spacecraft. For the last couple of decades the DOD has invested in enormous, expensive (so-called "exquisite") satellites that take years to build and get into operation.
The program managers claim that soldiers around the world will be able to get updated high-resolution imagery of their locations within 90 minutes.
The recent school of thought among satellite developers is to get away from the size and cost of large satellites. The Senate Armed Services Committee tasked the Government Accountability Office (GAO) to conduct a study about changing DOD satellite constellations. As with many government studies, the GAO study, published October 30, 2014,called for more studies, but also recommended that the DOD "expand demonstration efforts to examine the operational feasibility of disaggregation."
In response, the DOD partially agreed with the recommendations, but is worried new groups of smaller satellites may not be compatible with their current ground station architecture. In other words, while it could be technically feasible to put a bunch of disposable cameras in orbit, it may be too cumbersome to modify processing centers on the ground to deal with a new flood of data.
Besides having a more nimble and responsive fleet of cameras, a series of disposables could increase US resiliency against potential attacks. If another country decides to shoot down a US military satellite — or if a satellite suffers a catastrophic meltdown — the DOD would be able to launch a replacement within 24 hours.
Yesterday, for example, a DOD weather satellite suffered a thermal spike, started spinning out of control, and blew up into at least 43 pieces. If there were another satellite waiting on standby similar to SeeMe, the capability could be fully restored by the end of the day today. Instead, the leftover chunks of the 20-year-old satellite will pose a space junk hazard to other satellites in orbit for years, waiting to trigger a Gravity-style explosion. Meanwhile, the DOD is down to only six weather satellites left in orbit.
One of the problems with having a bunch of small satellites is figuring out how to launch all of them into orbit. If the goal is to give soldiers anywhere on the planet speedy access to space selfies, the satellites have to be launched into different orbits around the Earth.
While new companies are coming to shake up the space industry launch market, DARPA has its own project (riffing off a 1980s anti-satellite weapon) to launch satellites into orbits using F-15 fighter jets. The "Airborne Launch Assist Space Access" (ALASA) project gets the launch vehicle off the ground with an F-15, then launches again like a missile to get the bird into orbit. The individual satellites would be limited to 100 pounds each, but they would go from runway to orbit within 24 hours.
This would completely disrupt the DoD's current launch monopoly company, the United Launch Alliance (ULA), who currently charges the US government an average of $225 million for a national security space launch. A typical ULA launch vehicle wouldn't be cost effective way to launch a water cooler in space, and definitely wouldn't be able to get off the launch pad within 24 hours. ALASA's launches would cost $1.5 million apiece, and are the perfect size launch vehicles for a SeeMe spacecraft.
Like DARPA, the Air Force is also jumping on the smaller, responsive launch vehicle bandwagon. After asking for funding from Congress for three years (an entire saga in and of itself), this year's Air Force budget includes money for the Operationally Responsive Space Office. The organization is looking for options similar to a SeeMe and ALASA pair for rapid satellite replacement.
Space-based disposable selfie cameras may still be a few years away from being operational, but the concept of nimble, customizable, smaller networked satellites is finally gaining traction at the Pentagon and could completely transform the future of military space-based reconnaissance.
Follow Steven Tomaszewski on Twitter: @stevetomski