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The US Special Operations Command is testing the use of smallsats like these to provide better communications for its forces in the field.

Special Operations takes the fight to the high ground


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On November 19 of last year, the Department of Defense’s Office of Operationally Responsive Space (ORS) set a world record as a Minotaur 1 rocket lit up the sky at Wallops Island, Virginia, placing an unprecedented 29 CubeSats in orbit on a single launch. Among those were eight US Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) CubeSats developed by Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) in Los Alamos, New Mexico. These eight “Prometheus” CubeSats are part a CubeSat technology development and demonstration effort to explore the viability of using a CubeSat constellation to meet existing Special Operation Forces (SOF) mission requirements.

Naturally, CubeSats cannot perform at or compete with the capacity of larger satellite systems. However, they offer a world of opportunities as gap fillers for joint force requirements and responsive space capabilities.

USSOCOM is the Department of Defense’s lead combatant command for planning, synchronizing, and executing operations aimed at combating terrorism around the globe in coordination with and in support of other combatant commanders. It is USSOCOM’s responsibility to ensure SOF operators in the field are well trained and equipped to operate in the highly dynamic security environment. The ability to initiate and execute collaborative science and technology development efforts is a critical enabler to USSOCOM initiatives to rapidly field SOF peculiar equipment. The USSOCOM CubeSat effort is just one of a handful of initiatives that will continue to improve the responsiveness of space capabilities and provide SOF operators with tactically relevant information by reducing tasking and data dissemination timelines.

CubeSat technologies are developing at a rapid pace and offer exciting new opportunities in the way of force enhancement and space-based intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance. They also represent a revolutionary approach to satellite development as they are built from readily available commercial parts in universities and small government developmental laboratories as opposed to traditional large facilities. Many have equated the rapid expansion in CubeSat technology to the personal computer in its infancy. The growth in small scale, solid state electronic components has made it easier and cheaper to build CubeSats using small-scale microprocessors, GPS units, cameras, modems, and radio equipment much like what are in today’s typical cell phone. For many years now, universities, high schools and groups of amateur radio operators around the globe have been putting small satellites in space.

Standard CubeSats measure 10 centimeters on each side and weigh only 1.3 kilograms. This is called a 1U CubeSat. Larger variants have recently been built, which include 1.5U (10x10x15 centimeters) and 3U (10x10x30 centimeters); even larger versions have been proposed. CubeSat weights have been flexible based on what launch vehicles can support. These small satellites are built on the scale of thousands of dollars as opposed to the millions or billions invested in large scale systems. USSOCOM’s Prometheus satellites are 1.5U CubeSats, cost less than $100,000 each, and are expected to have a service life of three to five years. Naturally, CubeSats cannot perform at or compete with the capacity of larger satellite systems. However, they offer a world of opportunities as gap fillers for joint force requirements and responsive space capabilities. Likewise, as responsive launch capabilities are developed, CubeSats may also provide an affordable surge capacity during times of crisis or increased conflict.

USSOCOM began its exploration in CubeSat technology when Special Operations Research, Development, and Acquisition Center (SORDAC), Program Executive Office Special Reconnaissance, Surveillance, and Exploitation (PEO-SRSE), launched four “Perseus” CubeSats in December 2010 after a six-month development effort as a technology demonstration, with an end goal of determining whether or not CubeSats could meet existing shortfalls in SOF requirements. This demonstration envisioned a three-phase effort with continuation decisions being made at the end of each phase. Phase 1 goals were to determine if:

  1. Low cost CubeSat space vehicles could be developed
  2. Communications link could be closed allowing transmission of tactical data
  3. Space vehicles could be simple to operate, enabling tactical operators in the field to fully control and maintain them

Under a ride share agreement, the CubeSats were launched into an extremely low Earth orbit profile and were predicted to re-enter the atmosphere within 25 days following launch. All the goals of Phase 1 were met; after development, the cost of each CubeSat was approximately $25,000, communications with the CubeSats were established during their first orbit and continued until they re-entered the atmosphere, and to assess ease of use, throughout the mission, operations were performed by various personnel with no prior space operations training. The Perseus CubeSats performed as expected until they re-entered the atmosphere after just over three weeks on orbit.

The CubeSats are demonstrating the capability to transfer audio, video, and data files from man-portable, low-profile, remotely located field units to deployable ground stations terminals using over-the-horizon satellite communications.

Having met Phase 1 objectives, officials made the decision in the fall of 2011to continue on with Phase 2 of the development and demonstration program and develop the next generation USSOCOM CubeSat, known as Prometheus. Phase 2 built on Phase 1, continuing to integrate technology innovations, and also taking an innovative approach with the programmatic, development, testing, and operations processes and concepts. The ORS Office at Kirtland AFB in New Mexico provided critical support throughout the design, development, and initial on-orbit test and checkout phases. ORS provided management assistance to the USSOCOM team, technical advice, operational insight.

In November, ORS launched eight Prometheus CubeSats for USSOCOM. All eight CubeSats are performing nominally. The CubeSats are demonstrating the capability to transfer audio, video, and data files from man-portable, low-profile, remotely located field units to deployable ground stations terminals using over-the-horizon satellite communications. The Prometheus CubeSat demonstration will provide the information needed to evaluate the innovative management, design, and development processes utilized; new technology developed; potential concept of operations for a tactically controlled space system; the operational utility of a CubeSat system; and assess potential costs and capabilities associated with various operational configurations to determine whether or not USSOCOM will transition the effort to operational use, continue development of future CubeSat systems, or invest in other emerging technologies. USSOCOM does not envision the Prometheus program to serve as a replacement for the services provided by other service components; it is merely intended to demonstrate that CubeSats offer a viable, low costs alternative capable of meeting warfighter needs while proving a rapidly employable, short-term gap filler for existing SOF requirements.

The unique mission that USSOCOM forces support requires employing cutting-edge tactics and equipment to ensure our nation’s SOF operators continue to operate at the “tip of the spear.” The commander of SOCOM, Admiral William H. McRaven, highlighted the Command’s reliance on the “SOF Information Environment (SIE) to achieve full operational potential” and the Command’s obligation to responsively organize, train and equip SOF forces in a March 2013 statement to the Senate Armed Services Committee. As a part of that effort, he further emphasized that USSOCOM will continue to pursue initiatives that will incorporate “increased access to SIE voice, data and video services to deployed headquarters and operational elements.” USSOCOM’s CubeSat initiative is just one of many ways the Command continues to exercise its unique ability to rapidly develop, acquire and leverage space technologies to meet the needs of SOF operators in today’s challenging security environment.

References

Leonard, David. (2004, September 04). Cubesats: Tiny spacecraft, huge payoffs. SPACE.com. Retrieved 22 November 2013.

Wall, M. (2013, November 19). Dazzling nighttime rocket launch puts 29 satellites in orbit, a new record. SPACE.com. Retrieved 21 November 2013.

Gruss, M. (2013, November 19). Minotaur rocket lofts 29 satellites from Virginia Spaceport. Space News.

The Posture of U.S. Special Operations Command: Hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee, 113th Cong. 15 (2013) (testimony of Admiral William H. McRaven).

King, T. Special Operations Research, Development, and Acquisition Center (SORDAC), Special Reconnaissance Surveillance & Exploitation (PEO-SRSE). (n.d.). Prometheus. MacDill AFB, FL: Headquarters Unites States Special Operations Command (USSOCOM).


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