Small satel­lite may give troops an eye in the sky

SpaceX set to launch first part of a pos­si­ble net­work for the Army.

Los Angeles Times - - BUSINESS - By Sa­man­tha Ma­sunaga

A net­work of tiny satel­lites as small as a dorm­room re­frig­er­a­tor could one day give mil­i­tary troops on the ground a real-time look at what’s lurk­ing over the next hill.

The first of th­ese satel­lites, known as Kestrel Eye, will be launched Mon­day morn­ing aboard a SpaceX Fal­con 9 rocket loaded with NASA sup­plies for the In­ter­na­tional Space Sta­tion.

If this de­mon­stra­tion is suc­cess­ful, the Army eventually could send a few dozen more satel­lites to low-Earth or­bit. It’s an­other sign of how in­creas­ingly ca­pa­ble small satel­lites are find­ing their way into an ar­ray of pri­vate and govern­ment ap­pli­ca­tions, in­clud­ing com­mer­cial imag­ing, sci­en­tific mis­sions and broad­band In­ter­net ac­cess.

Al­ready, San Fran­cis­cobased Planet op­er­ates a small-satel­lite net­work to cap­ture im­ages of Earth, while Boe­ing Co., OneWeb and Hawthorne-based SpaceX are plan­ning so­called con­stel­la­tions of satel­lites to pro­vide broad­band In­ter­net ac­cess.

Now the mil­i­tary is join­ing in.

With Kestrel Eye — named af­ter a small, sharpeyed fal­con — troops about to em­bark on a mis­sion could go to a ground sta­tion and use a lap­top that con­nects to a por­ta­ble and light­weight an­tenna to pull up im­ages of an area. The real­time in­for­ma­tion could tell them whether their plans need to be ad­justed — if a pre­vi­ously empty field is now filled with ve­hi­cles, for in­stance.

Kestrel Eye im­ages won’t be as high-qual­ity as those from a larger mil­i­tary satel­lite, which can cap­ture specific de­tails such as faces or ve­hi­cle li­cense plate num-

bers. With Kestrel Eye, troops will be able to see large ve­hi­cles such as tanks or cars.

But for fight­ers on the ground, speed can trump de­tail.

“It’s all about try­ing to get in­for­ma­tion down to that low-level tac­ti­cal war fighter rapidly,” said Chip Hardy, Kestrel Eye pro­gram man­ager at the U.S. Army Space and Mis­sile De­fense Com­mand tech cen­ter’s space and strate­gic sys­tems di­rec­torate.

Larger mil­i­tary satel­lites can pro­vide area im­agery, but with slower turn­around times be­cause they of­ten are tasked with many mis­sions, said Bill Ostrove, aerospace and de­fense an­a­lyst at Fore­cast In­ter­na­tional.

Drones also can be help­ful, but it takes time to f ly out and check an area. And over­head air­craft aren’t ex­actly covert.

Us­ing a small satel­lite for this mis­sion means devel­op­ment and launch costs can re­main low, Hardy said. Lower costs and quicker pro­duc­tion times also give the mil­i­tary the op­tion of launch­ing th­ese satel­lites rapidly as needed.

The Kestrel Eye de­mon­stra­tion satel­lite was con- structed by Ad­cole Mary­land Aerospace, a small-satel­lite and space­craft man­u­fac­turer with lo­ca­tions in Mas­sachusetts and Mary­land. The U.S. Army Space and Mis­sile De­fense Com­mand/Army Forces Strate­gic Com­mand over­saw the ef­fort and pro­vided tech­ni­cal guid­ance.

Al­though the mil­i­tary has been slower to adopt small satel­lites than the com­mer­cial sec­tor, th­ese tiny space­craft eventually could com­ple­ment larger, tra­di­tional satel­lites.

“You’ll have some mis­sions that can be done by a smaller satel­lite that can be much cheaper and more re­spon­sive, and the larger and more strate­gic mis­sions will be con­ducted by th­ese larger satel­lites,” Ostrove said.

SpaceX’s Dragon cargo cap­sule is ex­pected to reach the space sta­tion Wed­nes­day. The crew then will re­move the satel­lite from the space­craft and de­ploy it to or­bit.

Kestrel Eye will par­tic­i­pate in Army ex­er­cises through­out the year and will be eval­u­ated for its util­ity, Hardy said.

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