Tiny Satellite Work Ramps Up
Diminutive devices will give troops real-time battlefield pictures
At a specialized factory in the Arizona desert, technicians are building satellites small enough to be carried by hand.
Roughly the size of a five-gallon paint bucket, they weigh about 50 pounds; tiny compared to large weather or surveillance satellites, which can weigh as much as a school bus and cost up to $1 billion.
Raytheon has more than 60 years of missile manufacturing expertise, and has adapted its assembly lines to build these detailed satellites at less than one hundredth of the cost of their larger kin.
“With our automated production lines, Raytheon can produce large numbers of these highly reliable small satellites quickly and affordably,” said Dr. Thomas Bussing, Raytheon Advanced Missile Systems vice president. “Delivering on-demand, space-based, tactical information to ground troops in remote locations could help save lives on the battlefield.”
The company recently delivered the first of these satellites to the Pentagon's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency under the “Space Enabled Effects for Military Engagements,” or SeeMe, program. The new mini-satellite will allow soldiers on the ground to see real-time pictures of the battlefield – which current military or commercial satellites cannot provide.
DARPA plans to launch a SeeMe satellite aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, delivering it to low Earth orbit later this year. Following a successful launch, warfighters on the ground will evaluate the satellite’s performance for several months.
Eventually, a SeeMe constellation could consist of some two dozen satellites, with each satellite lasting up to one year before de-orbiting and burning up, leaving no debris behind.
The market for small, “disposable” satellites is estimated to be worth $7 billion over the next several years. And while the product is new, designers were able to draw on Raytheon’s deep experience in building satellite sensors and the control systems for them.
The satellites are being built by Raytheon's Missile Systems business. Its Intelligence, Information and Services division built the ground command station. And colleagues from the company's Space and Airborne Systems business contributed their knowledge of radiation and thermal analysis.
Dan Cheeseman, a chief architect and engineer for Raytheon’s Operationally Responsive Space Programs, said he postponed retirement to work on the project.
“This country has a romantic engagement with space,” Cheeseman said. “If you’re an engineer, you are always thinking about space. That frontier excites people, and we have many young engineers who love working in this area.”