Smaller, better, faster – new concept of imaging satellites by U.S. National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency

U.S. National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency is seriously considering putting money and effort into small imaging satellites. Is it beginning of revolution?

Most of us are considering satellite as large construction with deployable solar arrays with dimensions of small car, filled with mysterious instruments like small nuclear plant or camera able to take a picture of our car in the garage. Nothing more wrong. Satellites long ago became part of our daily life. Their onboard instruments are still fancy but number of parts which could be bought in first shop with electronics is increasing. Of course, advanced military or communication satellites are still large, expensive and high tech equipment. But percent contribution of simple, affordable constructions is growing significantly. Important fact is that this grow is not linked with decrease of quality or range of capability.  It is worth to mention that due the progress in technical level of off-the-shelf electronics number of satellites built with wide available parts is growing. Number of university program satellites like NPSAT 1 (Naval Postgraduate School Satellite 1) is utilizing such parts. Another trend was begun by Cubesat standard in 1999. Developed in California Polytechnic State University and Stanford University was focused on creating possibility for Universities to develop their own affordable LEO satellites. Platform was designed as cube shaped space frame with mass at around 1 kg and capacity under 1 l. In next decade Cubesat became one of most popular platform for commercial and amateur satellites with percent contribution in 2013 at over 50%.

Current half of year is filled with signs of closing change in way of thinking about satellites.  Cubesats are definitely most popular platform for commercial and research objectives. Trend was noticed by ULA which announced on 19 November that will offer limited free launches for Cubesats designed under academic programs. In October 2015 British company ThumbSat Inc. announced about plans of manufacturing nanosatellites called Thumbsat. Satellite will be controlled by circuit board with dimensions: 48 mm x 48 mm x 32 mm. Operational life will be ten weeks. First launch with Rocket Lab Electron vehicle is planned for February 2016. On 16 November 2015, director of National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency Robert Cardillo, announced that NGA will put significant part of their budget for 2017 in developing small imaginary satellites. Goal for NGA will be obtaining peak number of small satellites in years 2018-2020. Of course NGA is considering wide cooperation with commercial companies - particular stress was put by Robert Cardillo on Skybox. Also representing U.S. Air Force Maj. Gen. Roger Teague stated that military is strongly interested in further developing small satellites. Developing small satellites technology is strongly connected necessity of future cost cutting. Department of Defense is still involved with projects of launch vehicles designed for small satellites. ALASA and XS-1 are good examples of new approach. Both are designed to lift small payload; without developed technology which will let for manufacturing fully operational observation, navigation and communication satellites in small size, ALASA and XS-1 will remain without payload. Department of Defense has developed U.S. Army Space and Missile Defense Command/Army Forces Strategic Command's Nanosatellite Program (SNaP) which goal is creating small communication satellite as a link in UHF communication (with usage of standard field transponder). SNaP is going to be less than 5 kg with deployable solar panels and cost around $500000. SNaP seems to be nicely fitting with ALASA program and developing small imaging satellite by NGA into new vision of battlefield. Even in most rapid situation army will be able to provide fighting soldier full recon and communication support not only from air, but also from the space.


On Small Satellites, NGA Putting its Money Where its Mouth Is