August 30, 2004
Equipping the military with Commercial Off The Shelf (COTS) products has become increasingly popular, for items ranging from computer hardware to cold-weather clothing. The latest COTS effort will merge a privately-developed satellite launcher with a Naval Research Lab (NRL) satellite incorporating commercial infrared and video cameras.
TacSat-1 is being built by NRL for the Department of Defense Office of Force Transformation and is designed to demonstrate the rapid assembly and launch of customized sensor payloads for tactical use with operational control of the satellite under the direct control of a field commander. Its a far cry from past years where expensive national assets reconnaissance satellites and the data they collect tended to be far removed from tactical operations. While the bureaucratic and operational barriers between warfighters and the satellite community have been thinned since the first Gulf War, the intelligence community would prefer a solution that keeps national assets focused on the strategic picture, while warfighters want a package they can use without any strings attached.
The TacSat-1 satellite uses a satellite bus initially designed for the Orbcomm low-cost low-earth orbit data communications satellite network and weighs in under 240 pounds. It will carry a thermal infrared camera (originallydesigned for firefighter use), a digital industrial color video camera produced in Korea, and a radio sensing package designed to fly on UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles). All three instruments will be ruggedized for launch and space operations. Total cost to build, launch, and operate the satellite for one year is targeted to be around $15 million, about the cost of an expensive UAV.
About $6 million of the cost will be spent on the Falcon-1 launch vehicle. The Falcon-1 is the first in a family of privately-funded low-cost launch vehicles. A two-stage vehicle using kerosene and liquid oxygen, the first stage of the Falcon is designed to be recovered and be reused. TacSat-1 will be the first launch of the Falcon-1 and is currently planned for November 2004 a years delay from an initial launch target of late 2003. Once in orbit, TacSat-1 will be directly tasked by regional combat commands to collect imagery or identify and track RF sources, with the collected data made directly available to the commanders through the military Internet. Doug Mohney