DARPA wants swarms of "disposable" satellites to provide almost-live images on demand
By Eric Mack
March 13, 2012
DARPA, the United States' defense technology research agency that's created such notable projects as the Internet you're using right this moment, is now looking for help in creating a swarm of "disposable" eyes in the sky. It is seeking technical assistance from a wide range of fields - from auto racing to optics - to create the means to provide on-demand satellite imagery for troops on the front lines.
The agency's SeeMe program (Space Enabled Effects for Military Engagements) aims to achieve what currently available military and commercial satellites cannot - near real-time satellite images of an area that could be used to plan military missions from the field.
"We envision a constellation of small satellites ... that would allow deployed warfighters overseas to hit 'see me' on existing handheld devices and in less than 90 minutes receive a satellite image of their precise location," said Dave Barnhart, DARPA program manager.
Barnhart says they're hoping to be able to create the small satellites quickly and for a cost of around US$500,000 each, which is why the agency is reaching out to other industries for help.
"To create inexpensive, easily manufacturable small satellites costing $500K apiece will require leveraging existing non-traditional aerospace off-the-shelf technologies for rapid manufacturing, such as the mobile phone industry's original design manufacturers, as well as developing advanced technologies for optics, power, propulsion and communications to keep size and weight down."
DARPA hopes to bring together this cadre of experts for a meeting on the project later this month.
Currently, the agency envisions each "SeeMe constellation" of satellites consisting of about two-dozen small satellites, each with a lifespan of 2-3 months in a very low-earth orbit. They would then re-enter the atmosphere and burn up without leaving any debris, according to DARPA.
It's also possible the small satellites could actually be launched from aircraft, allowing for the rapid deployment DARPA hopes to facilitate with SeeMe. Another of the agency's projects, Airborne Launch Assist Space Access (ALASA), is designed to provide low-cost, quick launches of small satellites into any required orbit.
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