TacSat-2 operating smoothly after launch

  • Published
  • By Michael P. Kleiman
  • Air Force Research Laboratory Public Affairs
Orbiting approximately 255 miles above the Earth, the 814-pound TacSat-2 spacecraft serves as the Department of Defense's inaugural experiment for future satellites that could be used to rapidly reconstitute lost space capabilities, or to augment existing systems.

This experiment is exploring radical new concepts for responsive spacecraft production, launch and operation. The micro satellite has already met several mission objectives since its launch two months ago, but the first few days of flight provided the program team with unexpected difficulties that they rapidly resolved.

Two brief setbacks, an incompatible radio configuration with the ground station and an error in the attitude determination and control system, have long since been corrected and TacSat-2 remains on course to complete a trailblazing, six to 12-month voyage. During this mission, the team is experimenting with new ways to provide direct in-theater tasking to a small spacecraft, which can collect signals and imagery and downlink them back into the same tactical theater.

"This has been the most challenging and also the most rewarding job," said Neal Peck, TacSat-2 program manager, Air Force Research Laboratory's Space Vehicles Directorate here. "The amount of interest generated by the micro satellite's mission tells us we are doing something significant."

Featuring 11 onboard experiments, TacSat-2 has accomplished some important milestones during its initial eight weeks of spaceflight. First, the imager, consisting of a 20-inch telescope with a four-color scanner, has collected several photographic images. In the process, the team learns how to rapidly calibrate and operate the spacecraft.

This will enable future satellites to be launched and operated within days of being called up to operation. Second, the common data link radio has been used to successfully task the spacecraft from a remote tactical ground station located in California. This facility, known as a modular interoperable surface terminal, has also demonstrated the ability to receive images directly from the spacecraft, a major step toward achieving the goals of operationally responsive space.

TacSat-2's propulsion system, a Hall Effect thruster developed by AFRL's Propulsion Directorate, has been exercised and continues to perform well.

This small, low-mass apparatus utilizes electrical propellant to provide nearly three years of station- keeping propulsion. Finally, the spacecraft has demonstrated the power and importance of autonomous and network-based operations. TacSat-2's autonomy software demonstrated its value during the early days of the spaceflight when the micro satellite placed itself into emergency safe mode to keep the batteries charged, as well as accepted commands from the ground.

On the other hand, in the midst of record-breaking snowfalls throughout the country, which kept most project personnel working from their homes, the network-based operating system allowed them to continue resolving problems due to its unique capability of transmitting information and instructions to the operations floor via a secure Web site.

"With all the challenges occurring early on in the mission, the project team has now really started to map out the TacSat-2's course over the next several months, which will ultimately impact what is going to happen in the future for tactical satellites and operationally responsive space," said Mr. Peck.

Mission objectives to achieve in the weeks and months ahead include establishing robust communication through the CDL tactical radio to the MIST ground station and downloading color images through this link, as well as supporting several DOD exercises. In addition, as the micro satellite demonstrates increased autonomy, the program operations center, situated at the New Mexico installation, will decrease staffing levels.

"TacSat-2 serves as a trailblazer for the tactical satellites currently on the drawing board and future operational satellites to come," said Mr. Peck. "TacSat-2 will set us on the path to developing new operational concepts."