REDSTONE ARSENAL, Ala. - Ask any soldier from any war and they'll tell you, communication is vital. The enemies of modern radios are distance and terrain, and the solution to those shortcomings can be found in outer space.
"The fact that we can get low-level signals because we're very close to the earth compared to the other satellites," says Tom Webber the Program Director for Space and Strategic Systems for the Space and Missile Defense Command.
Webber is talking about nanosats, small communications satellites which are launched into low earth orbit as close as 93 miles. They're intended to be launched in small groups referred to as constellations. The goal is to always have a satellite orbiting over an area where soldiers are deployed. "The satellites significantly enhance the ability to get messages through when they are needed. It could be the difference between life or death," says Tom Webber.
The communications satellites are about the size of a standard mailbox. They feature solar cells and antennas. Three of the latest model nanosats will be taken to space by an Atlas 5 rocket when it blasts off from Vandenberg Air Force base in California. Since the satellites will be hitching a ride, there won't be any cost for the tip. Once deployed in space, the Army's Southern Command, which is a project sponsor, will put the satellites to the test.
There's also an imaging nanosat. Its job is to provide soldiers with pictures of what they can't see with their eyes. For instance, if soldiers had to see on the other side of a mountain, they would be able to call for a picture, and the nanosat's camera would be trained on the area in question. The image would be available in a few hours or less, and it wouldn't need to be high-definition. "We want to provide what's good enough. What gives them the situational awareness that makes the difference," says Tom Webber.
For testing, the visual nanosats will travel on a resupply mission to the International Space Station, where they'll be deployed by astronauts. Once again there will be no cost.
Now one thing to remember about all the nanosats is the fact they'll be in low earth orbit, and that means within two or three years the orbit will degrade and the satellites will burn up in the atmosphere. That's actually okay. "The benefit then is we're using technology refresh every two to three years," says Tom Webber. It's a bit like the situation with cell phones, where the technology is upgraded on a regular basis. Like your phone, the nanosats need to work as well as modern technology will allow.
These small tough satellites are relatively cheap. Their development though, isn't driven by cost. "I truly believe that they will not only save war fighter lives, but they will give us the tactical advantage that we need against our adversaries, who are always improving their capabilities as well," says Webber.
The goal of the program is have these nanosats ready for operation as the Army prepares its operational plans for the next decade and beyond.