The Army Has a New Eye in the Sky

Kestrel Eye will demonstrate the usefulness of small imaging satellites for battlefield commanders.

Kestrel Eye being prepared for launch.

The U.S. Army would like for its soldiers to get satellite images of a battlefield within minutes of a request, so they can make real-time decisions in the field about where to go or which locations to attack—just like in the movies. The eventual goal is a swarm of mini-satellites for use anywhere in the world. But first the technology has to be tested.

A 110-pound satellite called Kestrel Eye was launched to the International Space Station aboard a SpaceX Dragon resupply mission in August, and has spent the past couple of months packed up inside the station. Late last night, the satellite finally was pushed outside the Kibo Japanese module’s airlock on a launch rail, then deployed into orbit using the space station’s Canadarm 2 robotic arm. Following a checkout period, Kestrel Eye will begin its test program, which is expected to run through the end of the year.

Production-line satellites will be cheap by military satellite standards—roughly $2 million each—although the Kestrel Eye demo model cost more (the amount was not disclosed).

“The purpose [of the demonstrator] is to show that with a small, low-cost, visible-imagery satellite you can take images and provide those to the ground warfighter, and they are military-grade utility,” said Chip Hardy, Kestrel Eye program manager with the U.S. Army Space and Missile Command, in a phone interview following the August launch.

The resolution is not as good even as some civilian satellites, as the Army is trading picture quality for low cost and speed. The nominal resolution is expected to be about 1.5 meters, which is big enough to see vehicles, but not people. Kestrel will orbit roughly 310 miles above Earth, in the same orbital plane as the space station. It’s expected to operate for a year, until atmospheric drag naturally slows it down and causes it to fall into the atmosphere and burn up.

The Army plans to run experiments with Kestrel using two ground stations. One is a fixed-site antenna at the Redstone Arsenal, Alabama. The second is a mobile antenna that will be used by a partner, Pacific Command, to do in-field exercises. Hardy did not disclose a timeline for launching the entire Kestrel constellation, saying it’s highly dependent on the results of the exercises.

While this is the Army’s first mini-satellite for imaging, previous ones have been flown by the Air Force and the private sector. The Operationally Responsive Space Office satellite (ORS-1) was launched in 2011 with an expected lifetime of a year, and was still operating in space as of 2016. Its visible and infrared imagery is available to U.S. forces in the Middle East and Southwest Asia.

The Army also has experimented with low-cost communications satellites, in projects like SMDC-ONE (Space & Missile Defense Command-Operational Nanosatellite Effect) and the more advanced SNaP (SMDC Nanosatellite Program. But both of these are still in the research phase. The idea here is that soldiers separated from their units would be able to call back to base, Hardy said.

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