Responsive space demonstrator ready to roll

  • Published
  • By Michael P. Kleiman
  • AFRL, Space Vehicles Directorate Public Affairs
In the near future, the Air Force will employ the responsive space concept and design, construct, test and deliver a mission-ready satellite within a 15-month time frame.

One week after receipt of a tasking order, the vehicle will be launched and operated in the cosmos. With the TacSat-2 micro satellite's scheduled lift-off from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's Wallops Island Flight Facility, Wallops Island, Va., in December, this rapid capability will take significant steps to becoming reality.

Unlike similar military spacecraft, which have taken 10 plus years to go from the drawing board into the heavens, TacSat-2, managed by the Air Force Research Laboratory's Space Vehicles Directorate here, has evolved into a responsive space demonstrator ready for flight in 24 months. In addition, the micro satellite provides an inexpensive alternative to most current defense-related space systems, which cost about 90 percent more.

"I am excited, because TacSat-2 is another demonstration of a new way of doing business. We have had high level Air Force and DOD interest, as well as high level congressional interest," said Neal Peck, TacSat-2 program manager, AFRL's Space Vehicles Directorate. "The push that we are getting from high levels will cause real change in how we procure space systems. TacSat-2 is step one in that process."

Weighing approximately 814 pounds, TacSat-2 features 11 onboard experiments, which will be conducted during the spacecraft's planned six to 12- month mission. The U.S. Navy's Target Indicator Experiment consists of a wideband sensor to gather radar, radio and handheld communication signals. The TIE will also check for the automated identification transmission now mandated for large ocean-going ships. Built by the Space Vehicles Directorate, the 20-inch optical telescope will be operated during the satellite's initial day in orbit and throughout the flight to exhibit low-cost, high-quality photography. Other scheduled tests include the integrated global positioning system occultation receiver, which will compile highprecision location data for the micro satellite, recycled solar array panels producing 500 watts of power, and autonomous operations allowing TacSat-2 to think for itself.

One particular trial, the Common Data Link tactical radio, has significant impact to deployed forces. The CDL will provide communication and imagery to the Modular Interoperable Surface Terminal located at the U.S. Navy's China Lake, Calif., facility. During functional testing, the apparatus successfully passed color pictures through the spacecraft to the ground station. In addition, program personnel will assess the satellite's ability to accept commands from the MIST but if previous history serves as an omen, than this particular test should be achieved.

While undergoing evaluations here, TacSat-2 would not accept instructions, so the project team requested assistance from the MIST, and the West Coast-based operation successfully communicated with the spacecraft. Nevertheless, all pre-flight evaluations have been completed and the satellite was shipped to the launch site in October.

"TacSat-2 will directly benefit the troop on the ground," said Mr. Peck. "By demonstrating that it can communicate directly with the China Lake facility, TacSat-2 can directly talk to any common data link compatible ground station across the globe."

TacSat-2 will be propelled into a circular orbit approximately 255 miles above the Earth at a 40 degree inclination by a Minotaur I launch vehicle. The satellite, housed in a shroud atop the rocket, will be released into space between 100,000 and 150,000 feet altitude, and will share the brief ride into the cosmos with NASA's GeneSat-1, a 22-pound nano satellite, which will perform a life sciences experiment.

"The trend is towards low-cost systems like Tac- Sat-2, but that is a philosophical change. The current philosophy is to build highly redundant systems to last 10 to 20 years in orbit," said Mr. Peck. "These platforms cost billions of dollars and they are already obsolete, technologically speaking, before their lifetime expires in orbit. Now, by flying the most recent technology, their lifetime is short, but they do not become obsolete and the federal government will save a lot of money."