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Military seeks super-cheap satellites for on-demand, eyes in the sky

  • darpa-see-me-satellites-02.jpg

    An illustration shows how swarms of military satellite could give ordinary soldiers battlefield images on demand. (DARPA)

  • ALASA-private jet.jpg

    A jet from the ALASA program is designed to quickly launch cheap, portable satellites from any landing strip anywhere in the world. (DARPA)

In just two to three years, disposable satellites may zap tactical imagery from space straight to a U.S. warfighter’s handheld.

On March 27, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the military’s research arm, will issue a call for a rapidly deployable constellation of small, inexpensive, disposable satellites -- a project called “SeeMe,” or Space-Enabled Effects for Military Engagements.

These satellites would let soldiers, airmen, seamen or whoever push a button on a  handheld device to “see me” -- and receive an image of their exact location within 90 minutes -- an unprecedented capability currently unavailable from military or commercial satellites.

And DARPA is reaching out to non-aerospace communities like automobile racing, industrial machinery, medical pneumatics and advanced optics to help in the effort. The agency is smartly leveraging off-the-shelf capabilities to reduce costs -- the goal is for each satellite to cost about $500,000 -- to keep weight and size low, and to accelerate production.

For example, DARPA hopes to 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. The agency hopes industrial machinery can assist with the solid-state parts, while medical pneumatics can provide valve technology and the world of optics can supply non-traditional RF membranes and visual apertures for these eyes in space.

The SeeMe program is an effort to dramatically lower the costs traditionally associated with new satellites -- and at the same time improve our abilities on the battlefield.

It will comprise a constellation of approximately two dozen satellites that will last from 60 to 90 days in a very low-Earth orbit. When de-orbited, they’ll burn up completely, leaving no space debris and avoiding any re-entry hazard.

DARPA envisions three phases to See Me: independent execution; integration of those efforts; and satellite constellation launch, culminating in a demo in two to three years of 24 SeeMe satellites.

Currently, in order to get a satellite into space, you need to launch it from the ground with a booster rocket. Not only can this take a month or longer to prepare, it comes at a hefty cost and can be scuppered at the last minute by even the weather.

Plus it can cost more than $30,000 per pound to launch a small satellite, and the launcher is shared with other satellites. Today’s fixed launch sites can limit orbit direction and timing, and rain or even clouds can shut them down.

But SeeMe satellites may avoid all of that -- by launching from the air rather than the ground.

DARPA has a way to launch 100-pound payloads off airplanes, a platform called Airborne Launch Assist Space Access (ALASA) that can reduce delays and weather restraints as well as costs -- to the tune of only one-third of the current commercial and military costs.

With ALASA, the fast, cheap satellite would be carried by a plane and released at a designated direction and altitude with a booster to carry it into space.

The ability to relocate and launch from any major runway in the world rather than a handful of fixed sites is a key advantage; DARPA says it could launch a satellite within a day of being called up.

U.S. military forces deployed to remote locations currently don’t have on-demand satellite imagery. Unmanned drones provide some local and regional coverage, but they require refueling for extended coverage. SeeMe wouldn’t require refueling and could support fighters in several locations simultaneously -- they’d just need a handheld gadget to connect with the satellite.

According to DARPA, anti-U.S. insurgents exploit commercial imagery services to gain information, giving them an advantage against our warfighters. A technology like SeeMe would help level this playing field.

If SeeMe succeeds, it would be a great tool for mission planning for small squads and individual teams.

Ballet dancer turned defense specialist Allison Barrie has travelled around the world covering the military, terrorism, weapons advancements and life on the front line. You can reach her at wargames@foxnews.com or follow her on Twitter @Allison_Barrie