Artist conception of a SeeMe satellite in orbit. (Credit: Raytheon)
While most of the country has been focused on the growing number of drones in this country – both military and civilian – Raytheonhas already moved on to the next generation of surveillance. Last month, the company announced that it is developing tiny, near-disposable satellites for use in getting battlefield surveillance quickly.
The satellites, dubbed ‘SeeMe’ would be launched from a jet into orbit, and within a few minutes would be able to provide soldiers on the ground with a zoomed-in, birds-eye view of the battlefield. Those image would be transmitted to current communications devices, and the company is working to develop a way to transmit them to smartphones, as well.
“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 Raytheon’s Tom Bussing in a press release.
The company has been awarded a $1.5 million contract from DARPA to develop this technology, with an ultimate goal of having a system in place where satellite images of a particular area can be available within 90 minutes of the initial request.
To accomplish that goal, what the commander in the field would be deploying is what the company calls a “constellation” of satellites – 24 of them would be deployed into low-Earth orbit, so that there’s one in range of the battlefield. The satellites would be launched like a ballistic missile from a jet, only instead of heading for a target, it would head into orbit. The satellites would remain in orbit for about 45 days.
Raytheon will be working on this project with theSierra Nevada Corporation, the University of Arizona, and SRI International. The goal of the project is to get the cost of each satellite below $500,000, compared to the tens of millions of dollars for a typical satellite.
“We are leveraging our ability to mass produce small items that meet the rigorous standards of space,” added Raytheon’s Randy Gricius in the release.
What caught my eye about this development was the focus on mass producing the satellites. I think we’re entering now the cusp of a new era is spaceflight – away from the customized, single mission solutions of the past and on to joining the rest of industry in mass producing cheap products that can serve a variety of needs.
The move to mass production for commercial space products has already begun. Standardized, modular labs that’s are enabling space science company Nanoracks to make money. One of the big goals of asteroid mining startup Planetary Resources is the mass production of space telescopes for both its prospecting missions and to sell to customers. And of course, the granddaddy of them all is the Cubesat, which is being used already for a variety of applications.
Once we’re in an era where satellites and other space products can be built relatively cheaply, those platforms could very well lead to an explosion of creativity and entrepreneurship in Earth’s orbit. It’ll be fascinating to see how this plays out.