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DARPA is working on tiny satellites that could provide on-demand terrain imaging for US soldiers

DARPA is working on tiny satellites that could provide on-demand terrain imaging for US soldiers

In late December, DARPA awarded a $1.5 million contract to Raytheon to develop small satellites capable of quickly providing US ground troops with imagery of their surroundings.

The SeeMe satellite - named after DARPA's quest for Space Enabled Effects for Military Engagements - is about the size of a water cooler and is cheaper to make and launch than the typical hardware sent into orbit.

Satellite imagery at the moment is more of a strategic than a tactical asset. It can help commanders decide on their next move. But it can't give individual soldiers an idea of what lies beyond the next thick line of trees.

The SeeMe program aims to change that.

"It's really about two things," Randy Gricius, director of Raytheon's space innovations group, told Business Insider. "It's about persistence - having the data pretty much anytime [a soldier] needs it - and about him being able to control it."

The kind of persistence Gricius refers to relies on having enough satellites to cover an big area of operations at a moment's notice.

The greater the number of satellites in orbit, the more likely it is that one will be flying overhead where and when it's needed. Gricius estimated that it would take only 24 of these small satellites to provide images of the ground anywhere within an area half the size of the United States within 90 minutes.

DARPA hopes that its satellites will be able to relay that information to soldiers on the ground in exactly that span of time, according to its description of SeeMe, which adds that soldiers will be able "to hit 'see me' on existing handheld devices to receive a satellite image of their precise location".

Raytheon SeeMe satellite concept art


Concept art of a Raytheon small satellite in orbit.

The satellites will come equipped with a color camera and a ten-inch telescope, Gricius said.

The program still has a ways to go. But if ever seen to completion, it would completely change how US troops request and process satellite imagery.

Currently, soldiers don't carry the hardware or software needed to receive imagery from the satellites. There are few existing satellites that are actually capable of ground-imaging, which is another reason the quick imaging DARPA envisions isn't yet possible.

And then there's the crowded virtual pipeline that today's satellite imagery travels through before getting to whomever needs it.

"A soldier on a battlefield is talking to some kind of command post with a satellite terminal that then relays the signal to the satellites," Gricius said, explaining the current process for obtaining satellite imagery. "The image comes back through that command post and back out to the soldier."

SeeMe satellites would cut the middleman (the command post) out of the equation.

The satellites also have shorter operational lives than the larger models built to survive years or even decades in space. After two or three months in low orbit, SeeMe satellites are designed to reenter the atmosphere and burn up without a trace.

The satellites could use off-the-shelf materials to keep costs below $500,000 per unit: nitrous oxide propulsion systems borrowed from the auto racing world, valve technology from medical supplies, and processors similar to what are found on inexpensive personal computers.

"They're literally off the shelf," Gricius said about the processors. "You can go on a catalog and order them today" - though he added that these have yet to be proven space-worthy.

Typical satellites are equipped with "space-qualified parts," Gricius said. "They're hardened, and they've had a lot of testing done to make sure they're reliable." That also makes them much more expensive.

But the smaller satellites might not need to be as durable. Radiation tolerance is an important feature for high-budget satellites, but it's not as critical in low orbit where the SeeMes will be flying.

Raytheon satellite small space manufacturing test facility Tucson Arizona


A Raytheon satellite technician works on flight hardware at the company's Small Space Manufacturing and Test Facility in Tucson, Ariz.

Raytheon will look to lower assembly costs for its micro-satellites by repurposing a missile manufacturing and test line in Tucson, Arizona, which they've dubbed "the small space factory."

Raytheon aims to launch a SeeMe satellite aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket in September. Up to ten other Raytheon satellites for other government programs will be along for the ride as well. If all goes well, after 90 days of testing the SeeMe may be put to actual use - Raytheon has pledged to hand any remaining life the satellite has after that time over to the US government.

That could pave the way for an American military that's much more aware of its combat surroundings, from the top brass to its men and women on the ground.

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