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A Win-Win... ORS + TacSats

Last December 16th, Orbital Sciences Corporation launched the TacSat-2 microsatellite for the U.S. Air Force aboard a Minotaur I launch vehicle from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility. The client was the U.S.A.F.’s Space and Missile Systems Center (SMC) Space Development and Test Wing (SDTW), located at Kirtland Air Force Base in New Mexico. Approximately 11 minutes after lift-off, the Minotaur rocket placed the TacSat-2 spacecraft into a low-altitude orbit. The rocket also deployed another microsatellite, GeneSat-1, for NASA’s Ames Research Center.

The purpose of the TacSat-2 project was to rapidly deploy a low-cost satellite to explore the tactical utility of a space Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance asset, which is a Department of Defense (DoD) objective spurred on by Operationally Responsive Space (ORS). The nature of this mission required a short schedule to prove the quick turnaround and launch capabilities of the Minotaur regarding the ORS mission for the U.S. military. When you consider the Minotaur/TacSat-2 mission was accomplished in just seven months, from contract initiation to successful orbit insertion, you could definitely state mission accomplished.

The TacSat-2 satellite demonstrates new technologies and capabilities for ORS support of military operations in the fact that there were multiple experiments on board the satellite. The primary experiment focused on a medium resolution imager, which demonstrated the ability to be autonomously tasked and rapidly provide data to warfighters on the ground. The TacSat-–2 and –3 partnerships include space organizations from the Air Force, Army, and Navy.

The TacSat-2 project manager is Neal Peck, and Thom Davis holds an identical position for TacSat-3. Both work for the Air Force Research Laboratory’s Space Vehicles Directorate, Kirtland Air Force Base in New Mexico. AFRL’s Space Vehicles Directorate managed the program and they also served as the integrator of the space vehicle and also administered the on-orbit operations. The U.S. government team involved numerous organizations and companies working together to accomplish this amazing feat that included:

  • Air Force Research Laboratory, Space Vehicles Directorate — program management, spacecraft integration, experimental payloads
  • Space and Missile System Center’s Space Development and Test Wing (SDTW) — launch, mission operations
  • Naval Research Laboratory — Target Indicator Experiment (TIE) payload development
  • Office of the Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics — oversight of Advanced Concept Technology Demonstration (ACTD) U.S. Strategic Command — ACTD user sponsor
  • Operationally Responsive Space (ORS) Office – oversight and sponsorship Pacific Command — user partner for operational exercises NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory — Inertial Stellar Compass payload development
  • NASA Goddard Space Flight Center — development of Low Power Transceiver Radi
  • MicroSat Systems, Inc. – spacecraft bus development, attitude control system design, experimental solar arrays
  • Broadreach Engineering — avionics and flight software development and Integrated GPS Occultation Receiver
  • Interface and Control Systems, Inc. — ground system and spacecraft autonomy Jackson and Tull — spacecraft integration and mission operations
  • Applied Technology Associates — mission operations
  • Science Applications International Corp. (SAIC) — engineering design support for optical imaging system
  • L3 Communications — development of Common Data Link tactical radio
  • Honeywell — Miniature Vibration Isolation System payload development
  • Orbital Sciences Corp. — launch vehicle and Nova Sensors — development of the four-color camera

If you’ve never heard about Operationally Responsive Space (OSR), understand this is envisioned as a capability to assure space power focused on timely satisfaction of Joint Force Commanders’ needs. ORS is intended to make critical contributions in terms of reconstituting lost capabilities and to augment existing capabilities. In addition, OSR will exploit new technical and operational innovations as well as enhance survivability and deterrence.

ORS will consist of spacecraft, launch vehicles, and ground segment to provide surge capability, reconstitute damaged or incapacitated satellites, or provide timely availability of tailored new capabilities.

Over the next few years, the Science and Technology community’s Tactical Satellites (TacSatS) and the ORS Office’s ORSSats will make a unique pathfinding contribution by providing opportunities for operational experimentation as they test new technologies to determine how valuable they are in warfighter operations. This experimentation will help warfighters evaluate ORS capability to make critical contributions in terms of augmentation and reconstitution. Near term examples are the recently concluded TacSat-2 operation and the upcoming TacSat-3, 4, and 5 launches.  

Each of the ORSSats and TacSats require an appropriate launch vehicle. In the near term, ORS is using the Minotaur launch vehicle from Orbital and the Falcon launch vehicle from SpaceX. Also being explored by ORS are responsive, economical launch vehicles for experimentation and, ultimately, the operational phase. All contracts were awarded based on the AFRL’s competitive procurement practices. However, there was one exception. The contract to MicroSat Systems, Inc., was a sole source award. The Minotaur launch vehicle itself was selected as a result of a competitive procurement managed by SMC’s Space Development and Test Wing.

There were three primary payloads:

  • There was an imaging system with a 20- inch telescope and a four-color camera that was developed by AFRL, SAIC, and Nova Sensors
  • The Target Indicator Experiment had an AIS receiver and a signal intelligence (SIGNIT) experiment that was developed by the Naval Research Laboratory
  • Common Data Link provided high data rate-tactical communications to a mobile ground station and was developed by L3 Communications

In addition, TacSat-2 consisted of the following science experiments:

  • Hall Effect Thruster for orbit station keeping – developed by AFRL
  • Atmospheric Density Mass Spectrometer for collecting measurement of the neutral atmosphere at Low Earth Orbit, also developed by AFRL
  • Roadrunner Onboard Processing Engine (ROPE) image processing and storage experiment, another trial developed by AFRL
  • Integrated GPS Occultation Receiver (IGOR) high precision GPS that also measured occultation of the GPS signals passing through the earth’s atmosphere and employed for weather prediction, developed by Broadreach Engineering
  • The Miniature Vibration Isolation System, which isolated the telescope system from vibrations induced by the spacecraft
  • The Inertial Stellar Compass provided spacecraft position knowledge and also employs an attitude propagator, developed by NASA’s Jet propulsion Laboratory with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology
  • Amorphous Silicon Solar Arrays for lightweight supplemental power generation, developed by MicroSat Systems, Inc.
  • The Autonomous Tasking Experiment, which automated complex activities allowing the spacecraft to do much of it’s own task scheduling and gave tactical users direct access to the spacecraft without the need for them to have detailed knowledge of the workings of the system, developed by Interface and Control Systems

Approximately two minutes into the flight, the TacSat-2 went “silent” — the first spacecraft contact found TacSat-2 “phoning home” exactly as scheduled. However, commands could not be sent to the spacecraft, due to a configuration error at the ground system. This was remedied in two days and all operations went as planned.

A final report is being prepared regarding the results and lessons learned from this enlightening project. Data acquisition performed as expected, with information distributed to users via a secure data network that allowed all to share the data with geographically distributed team members. The tactical communications link also performed as expected, however, there are inherent limitations when operating a tactical link with a space asset. Considering all of the needs, a space-based communications network would be most helpful for future tactical space systems.

The overall result was that TacSat-2 accomplished much more than was originally envisioned when the program was first conceived. All of the successes, as well as the failures, associated with TacSat-2 are already being leveraged by TacSat-3, -4 and –5. Moreover, the ORS office is ensuring the lessons learned will be employed in the development of future, operational ORS capabilities.

As far as cost savings and speed of implementation tempting the Pentagon into additional missions, TacSat-2 is but the first of what is intended to be a string of successful TacSat experiments. TacSat-3 will launch this year, with TacSat-4 to launch in 2009 and TacSat-5 in 2010. Obviously, additional launches would not have been scheduled had TacSat-2 not met, and exceeded, expectations. Sincere congratulations to all who played a role in the program — the ultimate winner will be the warfighter and our nation.

Project Manager Biographies
In addition to serving as program manager for the successful TacSat-2 mission, Neal Peck also worked for the Air Force Research Laboratory’s Space Vehicles Directorate, Kirtland Air Force Base, N.M., for 10 plus years in a variety of positions, including technology and strategic planner, as well as the Acting Chief, Strategy and Plans Branch. During his 11-year career as an Air Force officer, he was assigned primarily in the space experiments field at Vandenberg Air Force Base, California. This included a tour as the Shuttle Launch Complex operations manager for the $3.3 billion Space Shuttle Launch Complex. Mr. Peck earned a Master of Science degree in Aerospace Engineering from West Coast University, Los Angeles, Calif., and a Bachelor of Science degree in Aeronautical Engineering, Air Force Institute of Technology, Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, and another Bachelor of Science degree in Chemistry, Cumberland College, Williamsburg, Kentucky.

Leading the TacSat-3 project, Thom Davis also held the same position five years ago for the Experimental Satellite System-10 flight experiment, which represented the first ever microsatellite to successfully demonstrate autonomous navigation and on-orbit proximity operations. Mr. Davis served 22 years in the United States Air Force, retiring as the Acting Director, Space and Missiles Technology, Phillips Laboratory, the predecessor of the Air Force Research Laboratory’s Space Vehicles Directorate, Kirtland Air Force Base, New Mexico. A command pilot with more than 3000 hours of flight experience, Mr. Davis participated in operational assignments flying the HH-3E and UH-1N helicopters, as well as the KC-135 tanker, including a tour with the 89th Military Airlift Wing (Presidential) at Andrews Air Force Base, Maryland. He is also an AIAA Associate Fellow and lifetime member of the Air Force Association, Military Officers Association of America, and the Order of the Dadaelians.