LEO Payload: DARPA looking for on-demand field Satellite Imagery

LEO Payload: DARPA looking for on-demand field Satellite Imagery
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DARPA is seeking to build a mobile satellite solution for field war fighters that will allow them to get near real-time satellite imagery of a region. The payload (100 pounds), the required orbit decay duration (60 – 90 days) and the need to burn completely in the atmosphere, suggest that this constellation of small satellites (Nano probably) will use the LEO (Low Earth Orbit) around 360 Km of Altitude (223 miles) and probably operate in the S-Band (2 – 4 Ghz) frequency range to ease the reception and reduce signal absorption due to weather conditions.

The agency objective to use existing handled devices, which will probably include, phones and tablets suggest that the solution will use a hardware extension that will integrate the antenna and the receiver. The imagery processing will be likely be done by the mobile device itself using a dedicated application.

Interestingly, the need for an “aircraft-based satellite launch platform” positions the Boeing X-37B unmanned spacecraft which operates in Low Earth Orbits as a good candidate.

More details on the expected solution from DARPA:

“DARPA seeks expertise from mobile phone, medical pneumatics, industrial machinery, optics and automobile racing communities to build inexpensive, “disposable” satellites for timely overhead imagery

Today, the lowest echelon members of the U.S. military deployed in remote overseas locations are unable to obtain on-demand satellite imagery in a timely and persistent manner for pre-mission planning. This is due to lack of satellite overflight opportunities, inability to receive direct satellite downlinks at the tactical level and information flow restrictions.

DARPA’s SeeMe program (Space Enabled Effects for Military Engagements) aims to give mobile individual US warfighters access to on-demand, space-based tactical information in remote and beyond- line-of-sight conditions. If successful, SeeMe will provide small squads and individual teams the ability to receive timely imagery of their specific overseas location directly from a small satellite with the press of a button — something that’s currently not possible from military or commercial satellites.

“We envision a constellation of small satellites, at a fraction of the cost of airborne systems, that would allow deployed warfighters overseas to hit ‘see me’ on existing handheld devices and in less than 90 minutes receive a satellite image of their precise location to aid in mission planning,” said Dave Barnhart, DARPA program manager. “To create inexpensive, easily manufacturable small satellites costing $500K apiece will require leveraging existing non-traditional aerospace off-the-shelf technologies for rapid manufacturing, such as the mobile phone industry’s original design manufacturers, as well as developing advanced technologies for optics, power, propulsion and communications to keep size and weight down.”

DARPA hosts a Proposers’ Day on Mar. 27. The following technology areas and non-traditional space communities are sought for the SeeMe program:

  • Rapid, low-cost manufacturing technologies (mobile phone industry original design manufacturers)
  • Propulsion technology (automobile racing industry nitrous oxide high-pressure cold gas technology)
  • Solid state components (industrial machinery electronics components)
  • Valve technology (medical pneumatic valve industry)
  • Advanced optics (developers of non-traditional RF membranes and visual apertures)

The SeeMe constellation may consist of some two-dozen satellites, each lasting 60-90 days in a very low-earth orbit before de-orbiting and completely burning up, leaving no space debris and causing no re-entry hazard. The program may leverage DARPA’s Airborne Launch Assist Space Access (ALASA) program, which is developing an aircraft-based satellite launch platform for payloads on the order of 100 lbs. ALASA seeks to provide low-cost, rapid launch of small satellites into any required orbit, a capability not possible today from fixed ground launch sites.

“SeeMe is a logical adjunct to UAV technology, which will continue to provide local or regional very high-resolution coverage, but which can’t cover extended areas without frequent refueling,” Barnhart said. “With a SeeMe constellation, we hope to directly support warfighters in multiple deployed overseas locations simultaneously with no logistics or maintenance costs beyond the warfighters’ handhelds.”

Source: http://www.darpa.mil/NewsEvents/Releases/2012/03/12.aspx

Photos Credits:
– 100115_USAF_Deep Freeze 006 By Joint Base Lewis McChord/ FlickR – Photo by Staff Sgt. Robert Tingle
Capt. Rob Selmer, 97th Airlift Squadron, and Tech. Sgt. Quentin Nemechek, 446th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron, review satellite iridium phone operations at Pegasus Field, Antarctica, during an Operation Deep Freeze mission.

– X37B on launchpad from Wikipedia