Small satellite could pay big dividends on battlefield
By CHRIS CARROLL | STARS AND STRIPES Published: September 21, 2011
UPDATED SEPT. 22, 1:12 P.M. EDT
WASHINGTON — It’s small, it’s cheap – for a satellite anyway — and it might keep you from getting shot.
Tactical Microsatellite IV, or TacSat-4, a 10-channel UHF communications satellite developed at the Naval Research Lab in Washington, D.C., is scheduled to blast off next Tuesday from a launch complex in Kodiak, Alaska.
Weighing in under 1,000 pounds and with a cost of around $150 million to build, launch, and operate, the spacecraft is designed to blast down a radio signal powerful enough to free troops in the field from carrying heavy radio equipment and fiddling with antennas.
The need for a clear signal can turn American fighters into targets. Medal of Honor recipient Lt. Michael Murphy, a Navy SEAL, was killed in 2005 trying to set up communications during a firefight.
Others have earned medals the same way, said a representative of a Pentagon program charged with churning out low-cost satellites to solve specific problems. In this case, that problem is how to keep your head down and stay in the fight while getting a signal out.
“This is really the first satellite to give us on-the-move capability… with handheld radios and no need for aiming antennas,” said Valerie Skarupa, head of policy and communications for DOD’s Operationally Responsive Space office.
TacSat-4’s strong signal can be partly attributed to its orbital altitude of 12,000 kilometers – about a third the height of a typical communications satellite – said Michael Hurley, head of spacecraft development for the Naval Research Lab and principal investigator for TacSat-4.
Additionally, unlike communications satellites that hover above the equator in geosynchronous orbit, the new satellite’s orbit, known as ‘highly-elliptical,’ will help it cover higher latitudes and hilly terrain better.
“When you get up to northern latitudes, you start to lose the coverage,” Hurley said. “But (TacSat-4) does cover the northern latitudes, and also will work better in the mountains, where geosynchronous satellites are too low in the sky” and could be blocked by terrain.
TacSat-4 coverage will cut in and out throughout the day as it circles the globe, reducing its potential use in battles, which generally don’t operate on schedule. The satellite will be available for troops in a given spot three times a day for a total of 6 to 8 hours daily.
“Assuming you’re on an operation that that can handle scheduled communications, it should be available,” he said. “For instance, a good use would be for small teams doing reconnaissance and can send back data on a schedule.”
TacSat-4 is going to open up satellite communications to a community of users who previously would have been bumped off the schedule by higher-priority strategic or operational missions, Hurley said. The new spacecraft should be available for training missions, VIP escort and other activities low on the seven-tiered SATCOM priority list.
While some missions require nothing less than the monster military satellites that take a decade or more to design and launch consume billions of dollars, Hurley said, smaller craft ought to be given more priority in the Pentagon’s space planning.
The new satellite is the first of what low-cost satellite advocates hope is a string of cheap military satellites that carry out different tasks but are based on the same essential platform.
“I really do feel strongly these more rapid transaction rates and more frequent launches need to be folded into the broader mix,” Hurley said. “It gives us more flexibility and better balance.”
And for the soldier, sailor or Marine who doesn’t risk getting shot as a result, that cheap satellite could prove priceless.