Last Updated: 01/21/2013*

Small, “disposable” satellites launched from fighter jets could soon give soldiers a birds-eye view of the battlefield at a fraction of the cost of other sensors.

SeeMe satellites, now in development at Raytheon, will give warfighters a nearly instant, zoomed-in view of enemies in the next canyon or behind a hill. The satellites will beam images to existing communication devices, and eventually to smartphones.

A SeeMe satellite peers down from space in this artist’s conception. Click image for larger view.

 “We’re putting near-real time data where the warfighter needs it – directly into their hands – and providing them with vital, tactical intelligence they can control,” said Tom Bussing, vice president of Advanced Missile Systems at Raytheon Missile Systems.

In December the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency awarded Waltham, Mass.-based Raytheon a $1.5 million development contract for the satellites. The agency says it wants small, “disposable” satellites that can transmit directly to the field.

The name SeeMe stands for Space Enabled Effects for Military Engagements.  Raytheon hopes to eventually build six of the satellites for ground testing under phase two of the contract.

A SeeMe launch vehicle roars off of a plane in this artist's conception from DARPA.

Commanders could position a “constellation” of 24 satellites in low-earth orbit so that one is in range every 90 minutes. Weighing less than 25 pounds, the satellites would measure less than 3 feet long, be about a foot in diameter and capable of staying in orbit for a minimum of 45 days.
 
“Basically, we’re taking Raytheon’s tactical missile approach and applying it to space,” said SeeMe program lead Leonard Vance. “Traditionally, satellites are large, expensive and packed with functions, and may take up to a decade to manufacture. Although Raytheon is not in the business of putting satellites into orbit, we are experts at high-volume manufacturing of missiles at relatively low cost.”

A SeeMe satellite can circle the entire earth in just 90 minutes. Artist’s concept from DARPA. Click image for larger view.

The company is also skilled at building products that can withstand the harsh conditions of space. Raytheon’s Standard Missile-3 destroys ballistic missiles in space using the pinpoint accuracy of a 'hit to kill' impact, and the company’s Exoatmospheric Kill Vehicle is a key component of the United States’ Ground Based Interceptor program.

The company also has a long history of making civilian space products. Its Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite (VIIRS), a sensor package on the Suomi NPP satellite, is delivering stunning new images of Earth. Raytheon-built radar equipment is aboard both NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter and India’s Chandrayaan spacecraft.

The cost of a traditional, multi-function satellite can run into tens of millions of dollars, but at full production rates each SeeMe satellite should cost less than $500,000. Utilizing a booster provided by the DARPA ALASA (Airborne Launch Assist Space Access) program, total launch costs would be $1.5 million per SeeMe satellite.

For the initial contract, Raytheon has teamed with Sierra Nevada Corp., the University of Arizona and SRI International to assist with the design work and eventual production.

“We are leveraging our ability to mass produce small items that meet the rigorous standards of space,” said Randy Gricius, space applications program manager at Raytheon Missile Systems. “SeeMe will be a high-value item at a production-rate price, and give warfighters priceless information.”

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