Satellites have often been called military “eyes in the sky,” and that may never be truer than for the small satellites being developed by Raytheon Co. for DARPA’s Space Enabled Effects for Military Engagements (SeeMe) program. These miniature space systems, each about the size of a five-gallon can of paint and weighing 50 lb. (Fig. 1), will provide ground troops with real-time aerial pictures of the battlefield. Much smaller and more cost-effective than standard surveillance satellites, they are being designed and assembled with a combination of human creativity and robotic dexterity.
Raytheon has adapted its assembly lines to build and test these miniature satellites with the help of the latest robotic technologies. Work is being performed in the company’s Fusion Innovation Lab, where employees are encouraged to creatively combine different technologies for positive results. “We were able to incorporate features into the SeeMe satellites so we can test these satellites on the robotic automated system,” said senior system engineer Tony Vulcano, who leads the SeeMe program (Fig. 2).
“With our automated production lines, Raytheon can produce large numbers of these highly reliable small satellites quickly and affordably,” added Dr. Thomas Bussing, Raytheon Advanced Missile Systems vice-president. “Delivering on-demand, space-based, tactical information to ground troops in remote locations could help save lives on the battlefield.”
The low-Earth-orbit (LEO) SeeMe satellites will provide degrees of surveillance and intelligence not possible with current, higher-orbit surveillance satellites. DARPA is expected to launch a SeeMe satellite aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket later this year, subsequently allowing ground forces to evaluate the performance of the satellite. An eventual SeeMe satellite constellation could consist of as many as 24 satellites.
The SeeMe satellites are considered “disposable,” with a service life of approximately one year. After that time, they will de-orbit and burn up upon entering the atmosphere, leaving behind (in theory) no debris.
The satellites are being built by Raytheon’s Missile Systems business, with ground stations constructed by the company’s Intelligence, Information, and Services division, and overall guidance on radiation and thermal analysis coming from Raytheon’s Space and Airborne Systems business.
Dan Cheeseman, a chief architect and engineer for Raytheon’s Operationally Responsive Space Programs, postponed retirement to work on the project. “This country has a romantic engagement with space,” he said. “If you’re an engineer, you are always thinking about space. That frontier excites people, and we have many young engineers who love working in this area.”