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Military Looks to Small Satellites as Costs for Large Spacecraft Grow 


By Stew Magnuson 

After some 50 years of launching large, complex, multi-million dollar spacecraft, the military and industry are rethinking the way satellites are built and acquired.

Large satellites aren’t going away, experts said at the Space Symposium in Colorado Springs, Colo. But the need for systems that don’t take a decade to develop and deliver, and can survive an attack, or be quickly replaced, is driving the trend toward smaller spacecraft. The “operationally responsive space” concept that calls for simpler and faster-to-orbit satellites will be endorsed in an upcoming Defense Department posture review.

Deputy Secretary of Defense William Lynn, while delivering a preview of the long-awaited space posture review at the conference, indicated that the responsive space concept will be a major part of the document.

The ORS program “can help us counter threats to our space capabilities. By building systems on small satellites, using modular components, ORS gives us the ability to rapidly augment our space systems,” he said.

The program “can deliver capabilities in less time than it takes to build larger platforms,” he added.

The need to field new technologies on time and on budget, and that have a more immediate impact on today’s wars have been themes repeated in Defense Secretary Robert Gates’ speeches. Congress has also singled out the cumbersome and expensive process of building satellites as a prime example of how major acquisition programs go wrong. Their costs spiraled out of control during the past decade, delivery milestones went unmet and the national security space community’s reputation took a hit on Capitol Hill. Last year, Gates cancelled the $26 billion Transformational-Satellite Program, after its schedule had slipped by four years.

In the beginning of the Bush administration, as several military and spy satellite programs were coming in late and over budget, the then director of the newly created office of force transformation, Ret. Vice Adm. Arthur K. Cebrowski, began touting the operationally responsive space concept. The idea called for smaller satellites that could be launched in weeks or months, rather than years or decades, as is the case with larger satellites.

The concept also would require launch systems that could lift off more quickly than current rockets, and less complex spacecraft that could be assembled from off-the-shelf components in a “plug-and-play” fashion depending on the mission requirements. If a large communications satellite were damaged in an attack, for example, a small stopgap replacement could be lofted to provide some services until it was replaced.

The office he led was eventually disbanded, but in 2007, U.S. Strategic Command established the operationally responsive space office at Kirtland Air Force Base, N.M.

It is preparing to launch its first operational spacecraft, the ORS-1, later this year. U.S. Central Command asked the office if it could fill a need for overhead reconnaissance. The exact kind of sensor it required is classified. The ORS office, working through the space development test wing at Kirtland, gave the contract to Goodrich ISR Systems, which had been supplying components to military aerospace programs for 50 years, but had never integrated a satellite before. The goal was to deliver the capability Centcom wanted within two years. So far, it is on track to meet that deadline.

The ORS-1 program will be a bellwether for where the military wants to go with responsive space, said Gen. C. Robert Kehler, Air Force Space Command commander.

“We can decide: How do we go forward? Do we want to go forward with this? Is there sufficient value here?” he told reporters. Combatant commanders are still thinking the concept over. “We are at a point where we can begin to make some informed decisions,” he added.
“My personal opinion is that there is value in a national strategic capability for the ability to augment or supplement” space missions, he said.

During a speech at the conference, he called the current satellite acquisition process “ponderous.”

“People aren’t doing bad things,” he said. But the steps they must go through to write requirements take too long. Recently, there are more processes being added into acquisition programs, he said. “If it takes us years to get through a requirements process that gets you to the beginning of the program, something is wrong with the process,” Kehler said.

Tom McDonald, director of the Defense Department, civil, and international space division at Raytheon, compared the purchasing of a large military satellite to an automobile like the Lamborghini. If a customer goes to a showroom, he can’t drive a car off the lot — each is custom built. Satellite programs normally start from scratch.

“Very rarely do we say, ‘well gee, this one looks like 60 percent of what we did before, so we’ll just use the 60 percent,’” he said.

These clean designs require more money and time, he said. They aren’t ordered in quantities like other military vehicles, and can’t take advantage of the economies of scale like a product built on an assembly line. Communications satellites, for example, may be produced once every one or two years.

During the past five decades, military and intelligence satellites grew bigger because program managers wanted to fit as many capabilities as they could on one spacecraft. It was expensive to launch them and once they went up, they could be in orbit for as long as 15 years.

“You get an exquisite instrument; things work fabulously in orbit for a long time, but that’s not necessarily the only way that this can be done,” he said in an interview.

Raytheon, believing that the trend will be toward simpler and for the most part, smaller satellites, has invested in the Responder Space Solution product.

This is a modular system, where the engineering has been done in advance of a customer ordering the spacecraft. If Raytheon can’t manufacture a desired component, it has agreements in place with suppliers who can provide “off-the-shelf” subsystems.

“What if we came up with an architecture that we could scale the size of these things up and down … and then do the engineering in advance?” McDonald asked. This is preferable to where the space industry is now, which is “too big, too complicated, too expensive, too long to build.”

“Off the shelf” is a figurative term in the space world. Raytheon is not going to buy something as expensive and complex as a focal plane array, and have it sitting around hoping that a customer will need it. Ordering these parts takes long lead times — as much as 36 months, he said. This also requires some “up front” thinking about the parameters a potential customer may require. Presently, these would be small- or medium-sized spacecraft ranging from about 200 to 2,000 pounds, he said. Smaller than 200 pounds fits into the micro-satellite category. There are physical limitations as to what spacecraft of that size can do. Larger than 2,000 pounds, and a satellite would enter into the large, “custom” built category, and suffer long development curves.  

Raytheon has not found a customer for the Responder system yet, but is building an engineering model to prove the concept, he said.

Barron Beneski, spokesman for Orbital Systems, said the emerging trend toward small- or medium-class satellites prompted the company to purchase General Dynamics’ satellite division for $55 million in March.

Small satellites “are never going to replace the big ones completely, but in our view they provide a much higher value,” Benenski said. “They tend to be a little less complex, which means they’re likely to be delivered with better schedule adherence and for the cost that government expects to pay.”

Charles Cox, special projects director at Goodrich, said, “I certainly believe that there has been a building groundswell recognizing that small satellites provide military utility, and as additional options in the space force mix.”

The ORS-1 satellite was the company’s first attempt at integrating a satellite, although it has been in the business of providing components since the first U.S. military satellites were launched in the late 1950s.

Goodrich is better known for its sensors. When the ORS office was looking for a solution to Centcom’s overhead intelligence requirement, Goodrich thought it had the answer with one of its already developed products, and put in a bid to not only provide the component, but to build the spacecraft.

There were no delays, he believed, because all the technology was proven. The strategy now in vogue in the acquisition community requires program managers to stick with fully tested technologies and not change requirements after they have been set. That is what happened with ORS-1, he said.

“Define what you want built and stick with it,” Cox said. “Let’s develop and validate the stuff before committing to it being on a satellite.” Nothing should be dependent on a breakthrough, he added.

Goodrich would like to compete for other small satellite prime contracts.

“If you’re willing to accept short mission lives, and you are a little less risk averse, then you can do things quicker and cheaper,” he said of the smaller spacecraft. The ORS-1 is around 1,000 pounds.

Kehler said there can be several approaches to building satellites.

“One size does not fit all. If we are crisp and careful about understanding what the requirements are in different mission areas, then we can come up with a different strategy for each of them.”
For larger satellites, that may mean the block approach, where new technologies are inserted in successive versions of the same model. The Global Positioning System is using this method.

On the other end of the scale, the Air Force may not have to buy a satellite at all to place a capability or experimental technology in space. Government agencies are now paying commercial satellite operators to piggyback only one component on their spacecraft. These so-called “hosted payloads” can save the Air Force funds, Kehler said.

The commercially hosted infrared payload flight demonstration program will place a new Air Force sensor on an SES Americom communications satellite that is slated for launch later this year, and place it into geosynchronous orbit at a fraction of the cost of sending up a free-flying spacecraft. The Commerce Department’s office of space commercialization said adding the sensor to the satellite will answer about 80 percent of the technical questions the Air Force needs to answer, but save it some $435 million. The program’s price tag is $65 million, the office said.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Coast Guard have also used hosted payloads, the office noted in a fact sheet.  

Disaggregation — or the spreading of capabilities around space to ensure that one satellite doesn’t become a single point of failure during an attack — is also driving the trend toward small satellites.

Lynn in his speech singled out the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s F-6 program as an idea that may reduce the risks found in space, which he said is now a “contested” domain. The concept calls for different subsystems to be parsed out on smaller satellites. The sensor might be on one spacecraft, the communications link on another, and so on, and they are all tied together with a broadband connection. If one component falters, the whole system does not necessarily fail.

The disaggregated nature of the system makes it harder to attack and easier to augment, Lynn said.

DARPA is spending about $185 million on the second and third phases of the program, but needs matching funds from a yet to be determined customer in the Defense Department to proceed, said Rob Frey, director of national space systems, at Orbital Sciences, which is building the spacecraft for DARPA. The agency is hoping to launch an operational demonstration in 2013, he added.   

Reader Comments

Re: Military Looks to Small Satellites as Costs for Large Spacecraft Grow

Raytheon is the answer-period

Andrew Furry on 06/25/2010 at 14:14

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