The U.S. Army plans to build and launch into orbit a constellation of satellites for the first time in roughly 50 years. And it plans to build the cluster of eight miniature communications satellites within as little as nine months, defense officials told Military.com.
The roughly $5 million effort is part of the Army's commitment to what is known as Operationally Responsive Space. The joint program, based at Kirtland Air Force Base, N.M., was created in May 2007 after years of vigorous prodding by Congress to get the U.S. military to change how it conceives of, builds and flies satellites.
For the Army, this is "a pathfinder project to fulfill an urgent need for beyond line of sight communications capability," said James Lee, chief of strategy and policy for Space and Missile Defense Command in Huntsville, Ala.
Lee's office set up a task force in March to decide how the Army should tackle the deployment of space assets. And the money for the service's satellite effort is coming from Army coffers, Lee added.
The requirement for the bantam-weight sats -- which measure about 30 inches square and weigh around five pounds -- was generated by a combatant commander whom Lee declined to identify. But you can get some idea who it is by the mission he described for the so-called "cubesats."
The satellites should provide communications for Army units below the brigade level operating in parts of the world where the military has no current secure satellite communications, such as Africa, Lee explained.
The only services available in those regions come from commercial vendors, he said, and they're often not American-owned.
In addition to providing needed communications links, the effort would also help build the Army's overall space capabilities, Lee said.
"We feel it's important to have experience at an engineering level to build space capabilities, even if it's a simple as a cubesat," he said. Army engineers will work alongside designers from a Huntsville-based company called MilTec, which will build the first six satellites. Space and Missile Defense Command will build the last two.
"We believe we have the expertise but many of our scientists don't have hands-on experience," Lee said.
All eight satellites will be launched together, either on a Minotaur or Falcon rocket. Minotaur, a four-stage solid fuel rocket that uses decommissioned Minuteman missile rocket motors, is built by Orbital Sciences Corp. The Falcon 1 is built by PayPal millionaire Elon Musk's SpaceX Company.
The Minotaur has flown seven times and the Falcon has launched twice but has not successfully lofted a payload into orbit.
The satellites will fly either in a swarm or will be flown in a loose formation. And Lee said the Army wants members of its space cadre to do the flying.
A senior Defense Department official who tracks space programs was supportive of the Army's plans, calling the move "great news." And in a sign of just how much the Air Force has dominated space systems and operations, the official noted that, "a little competition never hurt anyone."
And Lee was careful to avoid offense: "We don't really want to replace the Navy or the Air Force." But with today's strategic realities, and the limited resources currently available in orbit, the Army wants to make sure it plays its part.
-- Colin Clark