Nanosatellites Could Play Pivotal Role In Defense Against Enemy Missiles
by David Vergun, DOD News
July 16, 2021
Two Missile Defense Agency nanosatellites ... known as CubeSats
... that launched June 30, 2021 into low-earth orbit from the
Mojave Air and Space Port in California could play a large role in
the future of U.S. missile defense.
The CubeSat Networked
Communications Experiment Block 1 ... part of MDA's Nanosat Testbed
Initiative ... uses small, low-cost satellites to demonstrate
networked radio communications between nanosatellites while in
orbit. MDA will conduct a 90-day demonstration, with a mission
extension of up to one year, to ensure the two CubeSats can navigate
properly, receive and send signals to radios and networks and
operate as intended.
A CubeSat Networked Communications Experiment Block 1
satellite is shown with solar arrays stowed at Space
Dynamics Laboratory, North Logan, Utah on June 2, 2021.
(Image created by USA Patriotism! from photos by Space Dynamics Laboratory.)
satellites will test key technologies that mitigate risk for
systems, such as the Hypersonic and Ballistic Tracking Space
Sensor," Walt Chai, MDA director for space sensors, said. "The CNCE
Block 1 mission will demonstrate the viability of advanced
communications technologies using reduced size, weight and power in
support of missile defense communications architectures."
is developing the Hypersonic and Ballistic Tracking Space Sensor
payload. When eventually deployed on satellites in low earth orbit,
it will detect and track hypersonic and ballistic missile threats
and provide critical data to the Missile Defense System and the
"The missile defense architecture will require
communications between interceptors, sensors and command and control
systems to quickly identify, track and destroy incoming enemy
missiles before they reach their targets. The CubeSats will allow
the agency to demonstrate the capabilities quickly and affordably,"
CubeSat missions allow for flexibility that
includes rapid follow-on flights featuring planned, incremental
technology improvements with overall greater cost efficiency than
using larger, more traditional satellites.
"The ability to
use CubeSats for low-cost access to space is essential in maturing
technologies for future applications in missile defense," Shari Feth,
head of the Innovation, Science and Technology directorate at MDA,
said. "For the NTI efforts, we only need something small to take
technology experiments to space in order to test in the relevant
environment and gather accurate data. CubeSats are the perfect
platform for this."
CubeSats are a subset of the small
satellite family of satellite systems known as nanosatellites. A
small satellite is generally considered to be any satellite that
weighs less than 300 kilograms (660 pounds). Within the small
satellite family, CubeSats are defined by standardized
characteristics such as shape, size and weight.
Two people work
on a device.
CubeSat "unit" is referred to as a 1U. A 1U CubeSat is a 10
centimeter cube with a mass of up to about 1.33-1.5 kg. CubeSats
typically range in size from 1U to no more than 27U in size.
By conforming to very specific CubeSat standards, reduced
mission costs are realized ... including costs associated with
transporting CubeSats to, and deploying them into, space, Feth said.
Most CubeSats are produced as commercial off-the-shelf
products. This is due, in part, to the standardization inherent to
CubeSats, making mass-produced components and off-the-shelf parts
attractive for commercial vendor production.
The cost per
satellite is about $1.3 million versus hundreds of millions required
for traditional satellite construction. The hardware was built, and
the bus and payloads were integrated, under a Rapid Innovation Fund
"The ability to leverage the rapid advances in
commercial CubeSat technology, as well as the growing base of
commercial small launch providers, enables a unique testing
capability never before available," Eric Cole, NTI project lead for
MDA, said. "The ability to test in the relevant environment of space
enables testing to achieve higher technology readiness levels,
making the technology transition path into operational systems much
According to Jeff Keller, chief engineer for
technology maturation at MDA, a primary advantage to maturing
technology through NTI is the ability to divide complex challenges
into discrete parts. "This allows us to effectively balance risk and
cost by utilizing a series of phased demonstrations. Each mission
leverages lessons learned from the previous mission," he said.
The overall result is that engineering and development of
CubeSats is less costly than more highly customized small
satellites. CubeSat payloads also enjoy the cost benefits from
commercial CubeSat technology, but they tend to be more specialized
for the missions selected by the CubeSat user.
applications for CubeSats range from communications, remote sensing
to environmental applications. For MDA's CNCE Block 1 experiment,
there could be commercial applications for the communications
technologies being demonstrated, Feth said.
"We leveraged the department's Small Business
Innovation Research and Rapid Innovation Funding programs to select
the cutting edge CubeSat vendors," Yazmin Carroll, director of MDA's
technology maturation unit, said. The vendors provide the spacecraft
and payloads to meet the NTI mission needs in support of key missile
defense technology maturation."
MDA and industry have worked
together to uniquely define and tailor a quality, safety, and
mission-assurance approach to balance risk and technology
development costs. MDA and industry have also worked together to
align industry standards and best practices to improve CubeSat
technology development efforts, Keller said.
went to space aboard a VOX Space LLC, a subsidiary of Virgin Orbit,
LauncherOne rocket as part of a payload-sharing arrangement with the
DOD Space Test Program.
Other agencies involved in CNCE Block
1's CubeSat development and experimentation are: defense
department-led Mobile CubeSat Command and Control, or MC3, ground
station network, Space Dynamics laboratory (Mission Integrator),
Space Micro Inc. (Payload) and Blue Canyon Technologies (Spacecraft
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