Launch of nanosatellites a major milestone for U.S. SOUTHCOM
By Dialogo December 10, 2013
VANDENBERG AIR FORCE BASE, CALIFORNIA—Under a clear, star-filled sky, 200 people kept their eyes glued to a giant video screen which showed a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket, a few miles away. An announcer counted down, three, two, one..
At 11:14 p.m. on Dec. 5, 2013, the rocket fired and launched into the sky. Moments later, observers heard the reverberation of the liftoff, which sounded like the rumble of a giant, distant freight train. Within seconds, the luminous rocket was traveling at 1,033 miles an hour, and was four miles in the sky, the announcer said.
The rocket was the seventh Atlas V to blast off from Vandenberg, just north of Santa Barbara, in recent years. But it was a historic liftoff. The Atlas V, which carries a National Reconnaissance Office payload, also launched into space the first United States Southern Command (U.S. SOUTHCOM) sponsored nanosatellite.
A landmark for U.S. SOUTHCOM
“This is a major milestone,” said Juan A. Hurtado, science advisor for U.S SOUTHCOM.
“It’s going to open up access to space that SOUTHCOM didn’t have,” said Mark Oetken, Army science advisor for U.S. SOUTHCOM.
The Atlas V’s payload includes one of three U.S. SOUTHCOM sponsored nanosatellites, which are part of the SNaP-3 Joint Capability Technology Demonstration (JCTD). The JCTD project is managed by U.S. SOUTHCOM’s Science, Technology, and Experimentation Division.
Nanosatellites are small, about the size and shape of a loaf of bread. They are less expensive to build than traditional, larger satellites, and sending them into space is relatively inexpensive. The U.S. SOUTHCOM’s SNaP-3 nanosatellites weigh about 11 pounds and cost about $500,000 thousand each , Hurtado said.
SNaP-3 could lead to communications improvements for military operations against armed adversaries, help security forces assisting civilians during natural disasters, and assist soldiers engaged in peace-keeping missions, and search and rescue operations, Hurtado said.
The nanosatellites are expected to help improve communications in the areas of data relay and transfer, text messaging, and audio communications, Hurtado said.
Strengthening ties with partner nations in Latin America
Brazil and Peru, two of U.S. SOUTHCOM’s partner nations, will help test the military utility of communication nanosatellites in remote areas, including dense forest regions.
The satellites should allow officials to connect and interoperate communications equipment, such as hand-held radios, among U.S., Brazil and Peru’s forces, Hurtado said. The nanosatellites should also help Brazilian and Peruvian security forces improve their own communications capabilities. For example, nanosatellites should enable security forces to continue to stay in touch with each other during natural disasters, such as major earthquakes or hurricanes that might otherwise knock out communications equipment.
Because they are in space, unaffected by natural disasters on earth, nanosatellites could allow security forces to continue to communicate, said Robert Dan Jones, a space operations analyst supporting U.S. SOUTHCOM. This would be crucial for security forces helping civilians during disasters, he said.
“A satellite system could allow officials to alert first responders about such things as what supplies are on the way and when they are expected to arrive,” Jones said.
Helping track climate change
The nanosatellites are also expected to help authorities monitor environmental conditions such as climate change, which impacts the water supply, food cultivation, and the energy supply, Hurtado said. Climate change is a security issue because scarcity of food or water or interruptions in supplying power could create instability.
For example, authorities could place sensors which are equipped with communications devices compatible with nanosatellites in regions where the melting of glaciers is a concern. The nanosatellites could monitor the sensors to help officials keep track of the rate of melting, Oetken said. The technology could also help military forces keep track of their supplies. For example, if a group of soldiers has stored a water supply at a remote base, nanosatellites could help authorities keep track of whether it is still intact over time.
Snap3 technology is comparable to the evolution of computers, Jones said. The first generations of computers were large and bulky. With technological advances, they became smaller, and now laptops and small hand-held devices, such as cellphones, have the capacity to store large amounts of data.
The first generations of satellites were bulky; some were the size of large buildings. With technological advances, scientists have developed nanosatellites, which are much less expensive than the larger ones, but still have great capacity when it comes to collecting and storing data and improving communications systems, Jones added.
“We’re learning to collaborate (with partner nations) in a new domain – space,” Jones said.
Tests and reports
U.S. SOUTHCOM officials will work with Peruvian and Brazilian military authorities to determine missions which can be used to test the nanosatellites, Oetken said. Those mission sets should be determined by April 2014, and the testing is expected to begin in May 2014, he said.
The nanosatellites are expected to last for at least two years, Oetken said. Oetken will work with the Naval Postgraduate School to interpret the data provided by the nanosatellites. Eventually, U.S. SOUTHCOM will publish a report detailing the performance of the nanosatellites and their most useful applications. The report will go to the Office of the Secretary of Defense, which can determine the future of nanosatellites in the military.
Providing technical solutions
Hurtado, Oetken, and Jones all have extensive military experience.
They work in U.S. SOUTHCOM’s Science, Technology, and Experimentation Division. The division works with the private defense industry, U.S. government agencies, academics, and the international research and development community to provide technical solutions to military capability gaps in a cost-effective manner.
The division has led developments such as PEAK (Pre-positioned Expeditionary Kit), a modular kit which provides first responders to natural disaster with power generation, communications capabilities, and water purification. PEAKs are pre-positioned in regions which are prone to hurricanes, floods, earthquakes, and other natural disasters.
The technology is used at U.S. Joint Task Force-Bravo (JTF-B), which can use it to immediately provide assistance to Central American countries which request help.