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Constellation of Small, Disposable Satellites on DARPA's Wish List

"Would allow deployed warfighters overseas to hit ‘see me’ on existing handheld devices..."

Artist's concept of DARPA's SeeMe program in action. (Image: DARPA)

DARPA has plenty of satellites but they are of no help to those in what it calls the "lowest echelon" of the U.S. Military deployed in remote locations. These satellites are only of use when they're overhead. To eliminate this problem, DARPA is seeking out small, affordable and disposable satellites that can provide imagery "with the push of a button."

DARPA's SeeMe -- Space Enabled Effects for Military Engagements -- program wants to put a "constellation" of about two dozen satellites into low-orbit that would have a lifespan of 60 to 90 days, according to its release.

“We envision a constellation of small satellites, at a fraction of the cost of airborne systems, that would allow deployed warfighters overseas to hit ‘see me’ on existing handheld devices and in less than 90 minutes receive a satellite image of their precise location to aid in mission planning,” Dave Barnhart, DARPA program manager, said in a statement. “To create inexpensive, easily manufacturable small satellites costing $500K apiece will require leveraging existing non-traditional aerospace off-the-shelf technologies for rapid manufacturing, such as the mobile phone industry’s original design manufacturers, as well as developing advanced technologies for optics, power, propulsion and communications to keep size and weight down."

Barnhart said he considers SeeMe a "logical adjunct" to drone technology, which already provides high-resolution images but can run into coverage issues due to the need for frequent refueling.

“With a SeeMe constellation, we hope to directly support warfighters in multiple deployed overseas locations simultaneously with no logistics or maintenance costs beyond the warfighters’ handhelds," Barnhart said.

The satellite design DARPA envisions would completely burn up at the end of their lifetime, leaving no residual space junk or risk for falling debris.

Popular Science explains that there is already a program in the works -- the Airborne Launch Assist Space Access (ALASA) program -- to launch this type of satellite into orbit.  PopSci believes the "SeeMe swarm" could benefit from the work of this program.

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