U.S. Army’s Space and Missile Defense Command/Army Forces Strategic Command deployed and activated into space on Oct. 24, the Kestrel Eye microsatellite. Kestrel Eye is a 10 kg, 30.5×10.2×10.2 cm, visible-imagery satellite developed by Maryland Aerospace Inc designed to provide near real-time images to the tactical-level ground Soldier.
Capable of producing 1.5-meter resolution imagery, Kestrel Eye’s data will be downlinked directly to the same Warfighter via a data relay network that is also accessible by other Warfighters in theater without any continental United States (CONUS) relay or data filtering. “Kestrel Eye held the promise of providing on-demand imagery of any spot on earth for the Army, something that had never been available before. And the projected price for a single Kestrel Eye satellite indicated that the acquisition of a large number of satellites to enable persistent coverage could be acceptable.”
Army SMDC focus is on demonstrating the utility of nanosatellites and microsatellites for the warfighter.
SNaP – SMDC Nanosatellite was launched in August 2015 consisting of 5kg mass cube satellite, $500K each, 5 times the data rate of SMDC-One, 3 Axis Stabilization and Propulsion. “This is a Joint Capabilities Technology Demonstration that will focus on voice and data communications beyond line of sight and improved access to high value information.”
“Nanosatellites in low-Earth orbit are traveling approximately 17,000 mph and are about the size of a football which makes them very survivable,” Thomas E. Webber, director, SMDC Technical Center Space and Strategic Systems Directorate said. “Providing the ability for our warfighter to communicate in an environment where traditional SATCOM is unavailable can literally be the difference between life and death.”
Microsatellites like Kestrel Eye provide several advantages over UAVs which are also used for ISR missions. Being at Higher altitudes than UAVs, allow them to provide coverage above denied areas. They are also more survivable compared to UAVs. They are invulnerable to surface-to-air missile threats and less vulnerable to anti-satellite weapons. Their smaller size and greater number and low cost enable affordable, persistent presence, lower probability of detection, graceful degradation so that no single shot launch failure or anomaly causes complete loss of service.
Game changing capability
The primary objective of the demonstration will be to task the satellite to take a picture of a designated ground object of interest and have that image relayed back to the ground Warfighter during the same satellite pass (i.e., within an approximately 10-minute tasking-to-product cycle).
“This is a game changing capability for the Army because for the first time commanders in the field will be able to control the entire imagery process from end-to-end, from the tasking of the satellite all the way through to the dissemination of the data to the Soldiers who need it.
It is a tactical electro-optical intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) system that that US Army will use “to demonstrate the military utility of providing near real-time situational awareness directly to a brigade combat team” without needing to relay signals from the Continental United States, Lieutenant General James Dickinson, head of US Army Space and Missile Defense Command/Army Forces Strategic Command (SMDC/ARSTRAT), said in July.
Operational Concept for the Kestrel Eye Field Portable Ground Station:
- The operator clicks on any point of the ground trace displayed on the world map and calls up the enlarged local map.
- The operator loads objects/areas of interest by designating them with mouse clicks. The positions can be adjusted by dragging and dropping. The approximate photo footprints are shown by white rectangles.
- The object track (red) is automatically updated as objects/areas of interest are added. If an object/area of interest is beyond the maneuvering capability of the spacecraft, then the operator is warned by a pop-up display.
- When satisfied, the operator clicks on “Send to Spacecraft” and the requested trajectory is transmitted.
- Kestrel Eye executes the planned track and snaps pictures at the designated times.
- Kestrel Eye immediately downlinks the requested images to a data relay network accessible by the Warfighter who tasked the satellite as well as any other Warfighter on the network who needs it. Technology Center
Kestrel Eye Microsatellite
They have low cost, approx $1M per spacecraft in production mode according to NASA, and operational life of greater than one year in Low Earth Orbit.
It was designed with the intent of developing a 30 spacecraft constellation that could provide real time constant battlefield tactical observation imaging. The intent is to demonstrate a tactical space-based imagery nanosat that could be proliferated in large numbers to provide a persistent capability to ground forces.
NASA said Kestrel Eye “is a microsatellite carrying an optical imaging system payload”. The satellite’s primary payload is a “medium-resolution electro-optical imaging system, an element of which is a commercial off-the-shelf [COTS] telescope”, the space agency added. It has an integrated command data and handling system, attitude controls, and solar arrays for power.
This specialized Army satellite payload consist of four solar arrays attached to the base of the instrument bus box shaped support instrument unit with a 10 inch tested telescope mounted above. The on board camera has the integral systems making it possible in real time via it S-band downlink system antenna to send two images per second of a 64 kilometer square area on earth.
The four solar arrays with their deployment systems and commercial based instrumentation flight avionics with its attitude control system based on the (COTS) Commercial Orbital Transport Services approved equipment IMI-200 have been prototyped. The 1M1-200 unit contains the 3-axis gyro dynes mass momentum gyros wheel system to maintain the correct required satellite imaging target pointing attitude.
Similarly the Camera, communications systems are based on the commercially available systems. The system is designed to be directly task able from the ground by the war fighters providing imagery with 1.5 to 3-meter resolution capability through the back-pack “portable ground station” set up with its sending receiving capability for tasking and date image return on the same orbital pass.
The satellite was assembled and deployed into low-Earth orbit by ISS crew. The 110-pound (50-kilogram) Earth-imaging spacecraft, which is operated by the U.S. Army, is so far the largest satellite deployed by NanoRacks from the International Space Station (ISS). The satellite was released from the space station on Tuesday morning via the Japanese Experiment Module (JEM) airlock. Kaber allows NanoRacks to deploy payloads via JEM with a mass of up to 220 pounds (100 kilograms). Kestrel Eye IIM is the first satellite ejected into space by this deployer.
After the Kestrel Eye is deployed a safe distance from ISS, the satellite will power up automatically and be ready to receive signals from the ground station.