ATK’s TacSat-3 Retires After Outlasting Expected Lifespan

[Satellite News 05-02-12] ATK has confirmed the retirement of the Tactical Satellite-3 (TacSat-3) spacecraft, which was de-orbited to burn up in the Earth’s atmosphere on April 30 – nearly three years after its launch in May 2009.

   ATK, the spacecraft’s bus manufacturer and prime contractor for the U.S. Air Force, designed TacSat-3 to endure six months of operation, while hoping that the satellite would last for a full year. TacSat-3 went far beyond these expectations – not only by surpassing its original mission requirements and goals as an experimental spacecraft, but also by demonstrating the capability to conduct hyper-spectral imaging to support the needs of U.S. warfighters.
   ATK Space Systems Vice President and General Manager Tom Wilson believes that TacSat-3 well served the U.S. Department of Defense. “We were proud to be part of the team that provided reconnaissance data from space to warfighters in the field and to intelligence analysts at home,” said Wilson. “Our innovative bus technology was a key factor in successfully extending the TacSat-3 demonstration to a longer-term operational mission. The mission enabled us to apply and enhance our flexible, modular bus platforms for future small satellite missions that included the Operationally Responsive Space (ORS-1) spacecraft.”
   TacSat-3 completed its second year of service in June 2011 after ATK successfully transitioned the satellite from experimental to operational status in its first year of service. The satellite’s hyper-spectral imaging features were developed under the ORS program to deliver more than 2,100 images and demonstrate the ability to transmit processed data to a ground station within 10 minutes.
   “We are already applying and enhancing our flexible, modular bus platforms for future small satellite missions that include the ORS-1 spacecraft. This technology is also well-suited for commercial and international missions where affordability, high-performance, and a short turnaround are necessary,” said Wilson.
   TacSat-3 was removed from operational status in February and then transferred to the U.S. Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center (SMC), where ATK provided the Air Force Research Laboratory with updated flight software to allow the vehicle to conduct on-orbit collection testing.
   ATK also provided the satellite’s complete bus system, which included the onboard command and data handling system, electrical power system, spacecraft bus primary structure, and interfaces to the launch vehicle and payload. The company completed the work in 15 months. “The spacecraft also featured first-generation modular bus technology designed to provide flexibility for future small satellite missions,” said Wilson. “As a rapid, affordable experimental mission, the specification did not include a propulsion system to sustain long-term low-Earth orbit.”
   The TacSat-3 program was managed by the Air Force Space Command with collaboration from the Air Force Research Laboratory Space Vehicles Directorate and the Army Space and Missile Defense Command.
   The U.S. Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) launched its Tactical Satellite 4 (TacSat-4) last summer from the Alaska Aerospace Corp.’s Kodiak launch complex on an Orbital Sciences Minotaur-4 rocket. TacSat-4 is a Navy-led joint mission that aims to provide 10 UHF channels to U.S. troops to connect their radios to communications-on-the-move (COTM) services in obscured regions without the need for antenna positioning and pointing.
   NRL built the spacecraft bus in cooperation with Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) and a consortium of aerospace companies including AeroAstro, ATK Space, Ball Aerospace and Technologies, Boeing, General Dynamics, Space Systems/Loral and Raytheon.
   The U.S. Office of Naval Research (ONR) sponsored the development of the payload and the first year of operations. The ORS funded the launch, which is being managed by a directorate of the SMC.
   “Communication is a critical warfighting requirement. TacSat-4 will support forward deployed forces at sea and Marines on the ground,” ONR Director Larry Schuette said in a statement following the launch of TacSat-4. “We’ve developed a technology more rapidly and at lower cost that will supplement traditional satellites, giving multiple combatant commanders around the globe another outlet for data transmission and communications-on-the-move.”

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