The Pentagon wants to launch clusters of disposable satellites into low Earth orbit to capture imagery at a fraction of traditional costs. The goal is to give the lowest-ranking members of the military access to the data through handheld devices.
The Defense Department is dishing out $45 million to partners that can develop these satellite constellation systems as part of a program called Space Enabled Effects for Military Engagements, according to a solicitation document released May 9.
The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, which is administering the experiment, wants to depart from “long-lived, high-performance satellites” that transmit imagery to a central hub to instead use cheap, disposable satellites that would transmit real-time information directly to ground troops using smart devices.
Satellites should be able to deliver imagery within 12 to 96 hours of being launched into orbit and offer persistent coverage, with lapses between captures lasting no longer than 90 minutes, according to the document.
A demo of a constellation composed of 24 satellites is planned for the 2014 to 2015 timeframe. A satellite cluster should cost just $12 million to procure, not including launch and operating expenses.
DARPA has been pushing for techniques for satellites that can be rapidly deployed. It awarded $1.9 million to Space Information Laboratories and $2.3 million to Northrop Grumman Systems as part of a program called Airborne Launch Assist Space Access, that aimed to develop ways to launch a satellite within 24 hours of a request.