By Jason CutshawMay 4, 2018
REDSTONE ARSENAL, Alabama - The U.S. Army Space and Missile Defense Command/Army Forces Strategic Command celebrates as Kestrel Eye performs its "Grand Opening."
Members of the USASMDC/ARSTRAT Technical Center were present April 28 as Kestrel Eye, a small, low-cost, visible-imagery satellite prototype designed to ultimately provide near real-time images to the tactical-level ground Soldier in the field, rapidly and inexpensively, was able to open its doors take its first images from space.
"The whole purpose of Kestrel Eye, its raison d'etre, is to be able to take images of the ground from space, in a way that is responsive to the Army warfighter," said John R. London III, SMDC Space and Strategic Systems Directorate chief engineer. "All the work leading up to now has been focused on getting to the point of being able to take images of the earth from space. Other space systems have been doing this same function for years, but what sets Kestrel Eye apart is it was designed from the beginning to be an Army satellite capable of supporting Army units in the field, and to do it on a moment's notice. This is the first satellite developed by SMDC to perform imagery collection and distribution, and it will be SMDC's first satellite to provide data that has the potential to be directly useful to deployed Soldiers."
The Army hopes to demonstrate the military utility of providing rapid situational awareness directly to Army brigade combat teams. The goal of Kestrel Eye is to enhance situational awareness of the brigade combat teams by providing satellite imagery without the need for conventional, continental U.S.-based relays.
London said the original Kestrel Eye program started in 2007 when it transferred from Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency to SMDC. He added that it has been through several iterations to get to the design currently on orbit.
"To see that first image after 11 years of work by the Kestrel Eye team was a moment of both joy and relief," London said. "It also was the start of a validation process for what we have been talking about for a long time - that space systems can be affordable, persistent and responsive to the warfighter at low levels of command. It is a space-borne tactical imaging satellite that SMDC can be proud of.
"The Kestrel Eye team, including SMDC government and contractor support personnel as well as our industry team, has done a phenomenal job in getting us to this point of success," he added. "There is more work to do, but the door has been opened to the future and as the program manager said when the first image came down, 'The Army has an imaging small satellite.'"
Kestrel Eye was launched to the International Space Station as a payload aboard the SpaceX Falcon 9 from Kennedy Space Center, Florida, Aug. 14 as part of the ISS cargo resupply mission, SpaceX CRS-12.
Kestrel Eye was deployed into space and activated Oct. 24, and once it was a safe distance from ISS, the satellite powered up and received signals from the ground station, then transitioned into the first of four phases.
The first phase was a technical checkout to verify its functionality and to make adjustments. The second phase, which happened April 27-30, is a technical demonstration of the satellite to demonstrate its capabilities.
"This is a significant step in the Kestrel Eye program in that it demonstrates the major function of the satellite, which is taking a picture," said Wheeler "Chip" Hardy, Kestrel Eye program manager, SMDC Tech Center's SSSD. "We have more work to do to sharpen the image and point the satellite as well as can be expected, but this step is huge in that it demonstrates the Army can have an imaging microsatellite made of commercial off-the-shelf components.
"We will now be working to the next major step is to demonstrate tactical relevance to the Army," he added.
The next phases for Kestrel Eye will be to undergo on-orbit verification, validation and testing in preparation for late spring operational demonstrations with U.S. Pacific Command, then utilize the satellite in multiple Army exercises as part of the final phase.
The Army operates Kestrel Eye using two payload demonstration labs. One is a fixed-site antenna on Redstone Arsenal and the second is a mobile antenna used by PACOM.
"Right after we opened the door, we started taking images to calibrate the settings so we took a burst of images with different setting," said Christian Reyes, Kestrel Eye operations lead, SSSD Space Systems Division. "We were very anxious to see the pictures and it was very nerve-racking to be waiting in anticipation but we were finally able to get our first photos of land. It was amazing.
"I was there at four in the morning downloading the images and I was so excited to know all of the hard work paid off," he added. "We were excited to be able to receive the photos because the satellite has been up there for six months and who knew what the condition would be like. I was really anxious but relieved when we saw the images."
As operations lead, Reyes ensures the system is able to meet all of the requirements so that the objectives of Kestrel Eye are met.
"I was involved when the satellite was parts sitting on a bench," Reyes said. "For me it is really exciting to be a part of the development and operating the different tests. Then to see it get launched and now finally to receive the imagery is fulfilling.
"Our government and contracting teams are outstanding," he continued. "It has been a mutually beneficial relationship for both parties because we allow the contractor team to focus on the development of the system while the government team focuses on actually operating the system. Each team is focused on their priorities but we all work very well together hand-in-hand.
"We're just getting started," Reyes added. "I am very excited to be able to fully maximize the use of the system and to demonstrate a capability for the warfighter to be able to receive imagery in a timely manner. I am really excited for Soldiers to be able to test this capability because they don't even know they might need it."