On Sunday, SpaceX launched CRS-12, a cargo resupply mission destined for the International Space Station carrying a “supercomputer” that has garnered a fair amount of attention, and with good reason, as it may serve as an important step toward equipping future space missions with lifesaving artificial intelligence.  However, inside the U.S. Army Space and Missile Defense Command and Army Forces Strategic Command, soldiers were celebrating a different piece of equipment that was along for the ride.

The USASMDC/ARSTRAT Technical Center’s Kestrel Eye project is a mini-fridge sized satellite demonstrator that hopes to offer U.S. troops in battle the ability to view satellite-taken imagery at a significantly lower cost than previous satellite imagery operations.  At only about 110 pounds, the comparatively small satellite can capture electro-optical images at a tactically useful resolution, and will allow soldiers to task and receive data as it passes over a battlefield.

This launch is hugely important for the Kestrel Eye team,” said Tom Webber, SMDC Tech Center director. “It’s the culmination of several years of hard work and commitment to deliver the spacecraft, not just to a launch provider, but to orbit. I couldn’t be prouder of the team and their dedication to overcome the many challenges and obstacles to get here. This is like sending your child off to college. You’re excited, nervous, scared, and proud all at the same time.”

Having access to satellite imagery could permit American troops to maintain the edge over enemy forces, by tracking their movements, identifying equipment, and identifying the size of an enemy force.  These benefits are all already available from military and intelligence spy satellites, but there aren’t enough satellites to task with observation of every potential conflict region the U.S. now has troops.  That’s where the small size and low-cost of the Kestrel Eye begins to demonstrate its value.

Kestrel Eye’s relatively low cost and forthcoming demonstration of utility represent a disruptive innovation in the collection and provision of satellite imagery products,” said Mark Ray, Kestrel Eye program deputy director. “Lower cost satellites can be deployed in larger numbers to provide higher revisits and offload demand from national technical means satellites.”

Kestrel Eye satellite prior to launch.

Although this first Kestrel Eye launch is intended to serve as technology demonstrator, rather than heading into service for the U.S. Army’s troops on the ground quite yet, its low-cost (by a matter of comparison to larger spy satellites) of just $2 million and anticipated orbital lifespan of over a year, the bargain spy satellite could be launched in much larger quantities than existing satellite imaging platforms.  That means more satellites can be available over more parts of the world.

Kestrel Eye is SMDC’s largest and most complex and capable satellite to date,” Ray said. “It represents SMDC’s commitment to providing high quality products to support the tactical Warfighter. It is the first to address the need for low latency ‘good enough’ imagery to the lowest tactical level possible and enabling better and faster decision-making.”

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That phrase “lowest tactical level” could mean there may come a day when infantry units on the ground are able to access up-to-the-minute satellite imagery of their surroundings, rather than the current limits on access created by satellite availability and the technological hurdles associated with quickly relaying the data.  This latest launch represents the 11th, and most advanced, satellite put into orbit by the team with that goal in mind.

I have never been to a launch,” Ray said. “In the past, I was required to operate the satellite very soon after launch. This launch is unique in that the deployment is separated by days from the launch event and allows the team to see the launch in person.  I’m proud to be a part of the Kestrel Eye team and look forward to a successful launch, deployment and demonstration.”

Images courtesy of the U.S. Army