Tiny Commando Satellites Are Like Smartphones in Space
Small, cheap, easy to build
On Nov. 19, the Pentagon’s Operationally Responsive Space office launched a Minotaur rocket from Wallops Island, Virginia—and achieved a world record. That single rocket lofted an unprecedented 29 tiny “cube satellites” into orbit.
The 29 tiny Cubesats included eight spacecraft belonging to U.S. Special Operations Command. Developed by Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, these eight “Prometheus” satellites are part of a technology development and demonstration effort.
The goal is to see whether a constellation of CubeSats working together can meet the needs of America’s Special Operation Forces. SOCOM uses satellites for communication and surveillance, among other missions. By using lots of small, cheap satellites instead of one or two much bigger—and more expensive—ones, the command hopes it can be more responsive to mission requirements while saving money and time.
There are other advantages in the tiny-and-inexpensive approach. If you’re frequently lofting lots of small and fairly disposable spacecraft, there are more opportunities to tailor the craft for special missions. You don’t have to spend billions of dollars and a decade developing a do-it-all satellite that has to last for years.
The trick is being willing to work loose and little. SOCOM’s space partners—universities and small government labs, mostly—build CubeSats from readily-available commercial parts, making do with what’s on hand rather than inventing brand-new components.
CubeSat tech is a lot like the personal computer back in its early years—or like smartphones are today. The hardware is getting smaller, cheaper and better at an amazing pace. These days, universities, high schools and amateur radio operators routinely send their own small satellites into space.
SOCOM is trying to be at least as smart as these do-it-yourself spacefarers. Take the same microprocessors, GPS units, cameras, modems and radio equipment that we use in smartphones and put them in a satellite body instead. Add the appropriate software, boost it into orbit and voila—you’ve built a satellite tailored for a specific mission fast and cheap.
A standard CubeSat measures 10 centimeters on each side and weighs only 1.3 kilograms. This is a “1U CubeSat.” There are larger variants like the 1.5U (10 by 10 by 15 centimeters) and the “3U” (10 by 10 by 30 centimeters). Developers have proposed somewhat bigger models, too.
These small satellites cost thousands of dollars instead of the millions or billions that the government routinely invests in large spacecraft. SOCOM’s Prometheus satellites are 1.5U CubeSats, each costing around $100,000. We expect them to last three to five years in space—not quite as long as a bigger satellite.
Naturally, CubeSats can’t compete with larger satellite systems in terms of raw performance. But they’re great as “gap-fillers,” meeting urgent needs at low cost. As our launch abilities improve, CubeSats could become a sort of space 911 force. During a crisis, you could quickly boost a whole bunch of them into orbit.
SOCOM got in the CubeSat game in December 2010, with a six-month development effort that produced four “Perseus” CubeSats as a tech demonstration.
The overall program has three phases. The first phase just wanted to prove that CubeSats could be cheap and easy to operate—and that their comms links worked in space. SOCOM met its cost target, building the first batch of tiny spacecraft for just $25,000 apiece.
For launch, SOCOM teamed up with other agencies—a sort of orbital “ride share.” The CubeSats boosted into an extremely low orbit profile, functioned as designed and, three weeks later, tumbled back to Earth. The crews that monitored and controlled the satellites had no prior space experience.
Phase one was a success.
In the fall of 2011, SOCOM began phase two, developing the bigger, better Prometheus CubeSat. The Pentagon’s Office of Operationally Responsive Space at Kirtland Air Force Base in New Mexico was there to help out. ORS provided management and technical oversight assistance to SOCOM, and on Nov. 19, 2013 they launched eight Prometheus CubeSats on SOCOM’s behalf.
Today all eight CubeSats are performing nominally and will demonstrate that they can take audio, video and data files from remote monitoring units on the ground and transfer them to military units. In that sense, the CubeSats are the communications link providing timely intel data to SOCOM’s deployed troops.
The Prometheus satellites are still just test assets. SOCOM needs to figure out whether—and how—it should make CubeSats a routine part of military operations. To be clear, SOCOM does not mean for Prometheus to replace all, or even any, of the military’s old-school satellites.