Army's Kestrel Eye hitches ride to International Space Station

By Jason B. Cutshaw (SMDC/ARSTRAT)August 15, 2017

SpaceX launch
(Photo Credit: U.S. Army) VIEW ORIGINAL

CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida -- The only thing louder than the cheers of one U.S. Army Space and Missile Defense Command/Army Forces Strategic Command team was the roar of the SpaceX rocket as it launched Kestrel Eye into space.

Kestrel Eye lifted off from Launch Complex 39A at NASA's Kennedy Space Center as a payload aboard the SpaceX Falcon 9 from Cape Canaveral, Florida, Aug. 14 as part of the International Space Station cargo resupply mission, SpaceX CRS-12.

The USASMDC/ARSTRAT Technical Center's Kestrel Eye is a small, low-cost, visible-imagery satellite technology demonstrator that is the size of a small refrigerator and weighs approximately 50 kg. When deployed, it will provide electro-optical images with tactically useful resolution that allows Soldiers to task and receive data from the satellite as it passes overhead.

"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.

"Once Kestrel Eye gets to the ISS we will have to wait for our turn to be deployed by the astronauts," he added. "We are excited that there will be a retired Army astronaut on the ISS during this time. Once deployed from the ISS, we will power up the spacecraft and conduct a series of functional checks to ensure (Kestrel Eye) is performing as expected."

Webber also thanked the U.S. Air Force Space Test Program, the NASA team and SpaceX for all making the mission possible.

When deployed, Kestrel Eye will provide images rapidly to the tactical-level ground Soldier. The data can be downlinked directly to provide rapid situational awareness to Army brigade combat teams in theater without the need for continental U.S. relays.

"This is a major milestone for SMDC/ARSTRAT," Webber said. "We have every expectation that placing Kestrel Eye into orbit will confirm our premise that an electro-optical microsatellite, tasked directly by the Warfighter, will fill a critical intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance gap for brigade combat team and below tactical users.

"Following a successful checkout we will begin an operational demonstration conducted by the Warfighter to assess the military utility of Kestrel Eye against several relevant mission scenarios," he added. "The Army relies on space in almost everything it does. To maintain over-match the Army must assure uninterrupted access to critical information across a multi-domain architecture when operating in a contested, congested and competitive operating environment.

"The goal of SMDC/ARSTRAT and the Kestrel Eye effort is to develop and demonstrate technologies that ensure our Warfighters have immediate access to critical, and actionable, situational awareness wherever and whenever they need it," he said.

An objective system, Kestrel Eye will have a relatively low cost at approximately $2 million per spacecraft in production mode and will have an operational life of greater than one year in low earth orbit. With its low cost, large numbers of satellites can be procured, thus enabling the system to be dedicated to the tactical Soldier.

"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.

"SMDC's goal is to provide dominant space and missile defense capabilities for the Army and to plan for and integrate those capabilities in support of U.S. Strategic Command and geographic combatant commanders' missions," Ray said. "Army science and technology efforts have advanced toward achieving that goal. I was part of the SMDC-ONE mission, Army's return to space, and saw first-hand how that achievement bolstered the command's efforts in providing innovative satellite capabilities."

Ray explained how the first SMDC-ONE nanosatellite launched in 2010 with a primary mission to support unattended ground sensors applications and provide limited text and data transfers. He said the command then moved into the SMDC Nanosatellite Program, or SNaP, which saw the development of higher gain antennas, more power collection and improved radio performance.

In total, from 2010 to the present, 11 satellites were launched and advancements made toward the goal of providing assured communications.

"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."

Launch Complex 39A is the only active site of Launch Complex 39, which is a rocket launch site at Kennedy Space Center on Merritt Island in Florida. The site and its collection of facilities were originally built for the Apollo program in the 1960s, and later used for the Space Shuttle program.

The 230-foot-tall Falcon launcher has nine Merlin 1D main engines producing 1.7 million pounds of thrust from a combination of kerosene and liquid oxygen propellants. Falcon 9 is SpaceX's two-stage rocket designed to transport satellites and their Dragon spacecraft into orbit. In 2012, SpaceX became the first commercial company to rendezvous with the International Space Station.

The SpaceX CRS 12 mission is the 12th SpaceX cargo delivery mission to the ISS.

"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," he added.

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