DARPA Begins Private Sector Search for a Half-Million-Dollar Imagery Satellite

[Satellite News 03-22-12] The research department of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) confirmed its plans to issue a call March 27 for a rapidly deployable constellation of small, inexpensive and disposable satellites under its Space-Enabled Effects for Military Engagements (SeeMe) project.

   DARPA said it is looking for satellites from non-aerospace communities that would allow U.S. military personnel to push a button on a handheld device and receive an image of their exact location within 90 minutes – a capability currently unavailable from military or commercial satellites. DARPA created the program specifically because U.S. military forces deployed in remote locations don’t have on-demand satellite imagery. Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) do provide some local and regional coverage, but require refueling for extended coverage.
   While this capability may seem even more expensive than the already pricey technology from state-of-the-art military manufacturers, DARPA said it wants each satellite to cost about $500,000.
   “Examples of “non-aerospace communities” that the program would be open to include the automobile racing, industrial machinery, medical pneumatics and advanced optics industries,” DARPA said in the program announcement. “The goal is to leverage off-the-shelf capabilities to reduce costs, keep weight and size low, and accelerate production. For example, we can harness the high-pressure nitrous oxide gas used in the automobile racing industry for propulsion, and the mobile phone industry’s expertise at rapid, low-cost manufacturing.”
   DARPA officials said industrial machinery firms could assist efforts in providing solid-state parts for the satellites, while the medical pneumatics sector could provide valve technology. The optics industry was cited as an example for its potential ability to supply non-traditional RF membranes and visual apertures for these eyes in space.
   The SeeMe program will comprise a constellation of approximately two-dozen satellites that will operate between 60 to 90 days in a very low-Earth orbit. The agency said the satellites would be designed to disintegrate after being de-orbited to dispose of space debris and avoid creating re-entry hazards for other spacecraft.
   DARPA is planning three phases to the SeeMe program: independent execution in phase 1; integration of those efforts in phase 2; and satellite constellation launch in Phase 3, culminating in a demo of the 24 SeeMe satellites that would take place two to three years after completion of the final phase.
   Curiously, DARPA also mentioned that it would prefer to launch the SeeMe satellites from space instead of fixed launch sites on the ground. DARPA said its Airborne Launch Assist Space Access (ALASA) platform could launch 100-pound payloads from airplanes, which it hopes would reduce delays, the effects of weather restraints and costs. 
   “[Launching with commercial or military providers] can cost more than $30,000 per pound to launch a small satellite, and the launcher is shared with other satellites. By using ALASA, we can cut down the cost of space access to one third of the current commercial and military launch costs,” said DARPA. “The ability to relocate and launch from any major runway in the world rather than a handful of sites is a key advantage. We could launch a satellite within a day of being called up.”
   DARPA has spent the past year actively engaging with the private sector for low-cost technology alternatives – a strategy most likely created by shrinking military budgets and the recovering private-sector jobs market. The agency also will commence a competition March 28 for teams or individuals looking to develop unique algorithms to control small satellites on-board the International Space Station (ISS).
   DARPA’s Zero Robotics Autonomous Space Capture Challenge calls for programmers from around the world to develop a fuel-optimal control algorithm that must enable a satellite to capture a space object that’s tumbling, spinning or moving in the opposite direction, according to the agency’s guidelines.
   Participants will collaborate via the Zero Robotics Website during four, week-long computer-based challenge rounds to create a computer algorithm that will be programmed into small-sized satellites called Synchronized Position, Hold, Engage, and Reorient Experimental Satellites (SPHERES) aboard the ISS.

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