U.S. Military Sees Promise in Faster, Cheaper TacSats
TacSat-1, seen here in deployed configuration, is the first spacecraft in the series expected to launch aboard Space Exploration Technologies’ Falcon 1 rocket in late 2006. Image
Credit: Raytheon

With U.S. military officials frustrated at the expense and time needed to build satellites, the Pentagon is fielding small satellites called TacSats that can be built faster and cheaper based on already mature technology.

At the same time, the Pentagon is working to identify technology that is not ready today, but can be matured relatively quickly for use with TacSats at some point in the future.

During a briefing for aerospace industry officials July 11, Navy Capt. Jeff Graham, deputy program officer for sensing and systems at the Office of Naval Research, summed up the frustrations of Navy space users--and their resulting interest in TacSats--with a slide that stated simply: "In general, 'space costs too much and takes too long.'"

Defense officials want troops on the ground to be able to use TacSats as soon as they need them to conduct surveillance of enemy troops, to watch for missile launches, track friendly forces, provide accurate targeting and forecast weather conditions, Christopher Olmedo, the Army's liaison to the Air Force Research Laboratory, said during the July 11 briefing, which was conducted at the Naval Research Laboratory's (NRL) Washington headquarters.

The TacSats are intended to be tasked directly by deployed military commanders. The first spacecraft in the series is expected to launch aboard Space Exploration Technologies' Falcon 1 rocket in late 2006, according to the company's Web site.

Separately, Congress added $17 million to the 2006 defense budget to begin a payload technology incubator effort. That money does not expire until 2007, according to Mike Hurley, head of spacecraft development and operationally responsive space at the NRL. NRL and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Lincoln Laboratory of Lexington, Mass., execute the program on behalf of the Pentagon's Office of Force Transformation, which had started the TacSat work in 2003.

NRL is leading work on both TacSat-1 and TacSat-4.

The technology incubator effort includes representatives from the Army, Navy and Air Force, Hurley said. The effort also coordinates with the various military combatant commanders to ensure that their needs are addressed, according to a broad agency announcement issued by NRL seeking industry proposals for work under the technology incubator.

Responses to the broad agency announcement are due Aug. 14. The effort has three levels of contracts, each with a different timeframe for awards.

Basic work that includes writing technical reports or testing a piece of hardware to see how it might react to radiation in space could be covered under awards worth up to $500,000, Hurley said. Those awards are expected to be made by the end of October.

Awards of up to $2.5 million that are part of a category called "moderate" could entail developing relatively advanced payload designs, Hurley said. Those awards are expected around December.

The third category, dubbed "complex," includes awards of up to $5 million that could cover work like the development of advanced prototypes, Hurley said. While that work would not likely generate flight ready hardware, it could take the technology to the point in maturity where it would be ready to be incorporated on a future TacSat, he said.

The incubator effort is intended to focus on technology that is not likely to be addressed elsewhere in the space community. One possible example of this is trying to apply payload technology used with unmanned aerial vehicles towards TacSats, as NRL did with TacSat-1, Hurley said.

While technology used on unmanned aircraft might typically be excluded from a space effort because it cannot survive over the long term in the space radiation environment, it might be useful with TacSats, which are not expected to operate for more than a few years, Hurley said.