Cheap Micro-Sats

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How a Space Enabled Effects for Military Engagements -- "See Me" -- satellite might be deployed.

Waging and preventing war are the foundations of national security. Innovative companies across the country are working on products for tomorrow’s fight. Here’s Battleland’s continuing look at what looms on technology’s horizon.

The Challenge

One of America’s most valuable military advantages is dominating airspace. We use a variety of technologies to deny enemy movement, destroy targets, and collect information. Unfortunately, the increasing reliance on satellite ‚Ä®imagery has created a dilemma for tactical and intelligence personnel. Military operations require timely and accurate imagery, especially during the increasingly rapid planning phase. These images can come from satellites, drones, and an increasing variety of sources. Sometimes the assets are not available, or the unit is operating in a remote environment and lacks the communication capability to receive such information directly. This increases risk to mission accomplishment and safety, particularly if the guys on the ground need to see something right away.

The Stopgap

Realistically, most units will end up using outdated imagery that may substantially misrepresent conditions on the ground. Troops still go through the chain of command to submit requests for imagery or aerial assets during a particular time. They often go unfulfilled. Intelligence groups, contractors, or other agencies can sometimes fill the gap. Open-source imagery, like Google Earth, can also be used, with the added benefit of sharing it with any partnered military organizations who lack security clearances. One of the worst-case scenarios happened recently, when AFRICOM was forced to use a Chinese satellite because it didn’t have enough on its own. Whatever you think of the Chinese, we probably don’t want our military relying on their satellites, even temporarily.

The Solution

DARPA – surprise! – is working on this problem by developing “micro satellites”. They initially funded the Airborne Launch Assist Space Access program, with the goal of launching cheap satellites into a low orbit for under $1 million. This challenge attracted the usual suspects – Boeing, Lockheed Martin – but also some unexpected folks, such as Virgin Galactic. With the delivery vehicle in the works, DARPA created another program called Space Enabled Effects for Military Engagements. This aims at build the cheap satellites that would be launched into low orbit. In addition to the DARPA programs, companies such as Millenium Space Systems and Skybox Imaging are carving out a niche to do the same thing, but for clients on the private side.


Good. There is substantial private sector interest in these cheap, low-orbit satellites, so the technology is coming. The real challenge will be getting actionable information to boots on the ground once the satellites are in place.

William Treseder writes about technologies and policies related to national security. He deployed to both Iraq and Afghanistan as a U.S. Marine and is now Head of Technology Assessment for BMNT Partners, a Silicon Valley technology-advisory firm.