The US military depends on satellites for communications and location-based information when soldiers are in remote areas of the world.
But what do soldiers do when there is no satellite within range, or they can’t receive satellite downlinks? The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) wants to solve that problem by designing disposable satellite clusters that the military can send into orbit cost-effectively and that will burn up when no longer in use, leaving no debris behind.
The SeeMe program aims to develop a constellation of small satellites that will cost a mere fraction of the millions current systems cost, according to DARPA. Soldiers will communicate directly with the satellites using handheld devices. One constellation will be comprised of about two dozen satellites designed to last 60 to 90 days in very low orbit.
An artist's concept depicts how DARPA's SeeMe program would work. The program aims to design disposable satellite clusters that will give soldiers location-based information in places where they would typically not have satellite coverage. (Source: DARPA)
An aircraft would take off and ascend to a cruising altitude and launch a missile that would enter into low-earth orbit. The missile’s outer shell would then disengage from the missile to reveal the satellite inside, which would then enter its designated orbit. Once the SeeMe satellite clusters are in place, soldiers will be able to access communications with them within 90 minutes of their deployment, basically by pressing a button on a handheld device asking the system to “see me.” Soldiers then will receive images of their precise location.
The military plans to use SeeMe satellites as an adjunct to current use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) that provide location information and images. However, UAVs have limits in terms of range and time of use due to refueling needs, according to DARPA, which posted a video about the SeeMe program online. (Watch the video below.)
Rather than costing millions of dollars, as typical satellites do, DARPA aims to keep the cost of the satellites down to about $500,000 or less through design and the materials used to build them. The agency aims to use off-the-shelf components, such as those used in the mobile industry, to develop SeeMe satellites. Other technologies used in the design include advanced optics, power, propulsion, and communications technologies to keep the size and weight down, according to DARPA.
To send the satellites into orbit, DARPA is designing a companion low-cost, rapid-deployment satellite launch system called the Airborne Launch Assist Space Access (ALASA) program. The agency is currently soliciting initial technology proposals for the SeeMe program.
Beth, it's a very real problem. In the last years of operation the space shuttles suffered several impacts. They've had several windows pitted with paint chips, and a radiator took a pretty substantial hit.
The final stage of satellite boosters often goes into orbit. Those that are liquid-fueled, if simply abandoned, have been known to explode from the residual fuel and oxidizer. The resultant debris cloud is much worse than just an empty stage. Most launch companies now provide a means of venting the fuel after releasing the payload to prevent this sort of occurrance.
In 2009, a first-of-its-kind collision occurred between two whole satellites. An Iridium communications satellite was nailed by a Russian Cosmos satellite. The velocities involved are measured in kilometers per SECOND.
@Mydesign, one of the reaons you have not seen satellites that are inexpensive and simple is the economics of launch. This has been something that the military has been working on for a long time. So, while it is not a big deal to design the satellite to a price, it is the inexpensive (and on-demand) launch capability that is the issue.
My father worked on a program, in last century of the last millenium, that attempted to build a launch system for such satellites utilizing a super gun. These are very large cannon. The idea was originally developed by the Germans in WWII, I believe. That concept relied on being close to the equator. Some of his colleagues got to spend several months on a Caribean island.
The price point on these "disposal" satellites is intriguing. I'm wondering specifically is there are any guidelines or requirements in the specification for these units that denote material choices or design approaches that would push the price of these units down so significantly. Seems like a pretty big jump.
@mydesign: Are you saying there is so-called junk or garbage littering the new frontier of space before any human population gets its hands on it in terms of day to day living? That's a pretty scary thought.
Elizebeth, now a days the junk items and garbage's are causing many issues for space stations and satellites. Sometimes collisions are happening between these garbages with space vehicles and satellites causing damages to the satellites. So scientists are planning for a mechanism to clean up the space junk items for smooth navigation of space vehicles and satellites.
Elizabeth, finally satellites are also coming to use and throw way. I think the GPRS services are providing through a consortium of different satellites at different orbits, so for GPRS navigation, the range or line-of-sight may not be a problem. But if GPRS technology is using for military purpose, security and privacy may be an issue. There are also other options like networking of satellites for communication and geo tagging etc are feasible mechanisms with the country.
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