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Raytheon to build low-orbit, disposable satellites for DARPA

Battlefield viewing from the edge of space

The fighter-deployed satellites in DARPA's latest plan - which will deploy them in orbits so low they burn up in a month - will be built by Raytheon, which reckons it can do the job for $2m a pop.

SeeMe* was announced last March, as an intermediate step between surveillance drones, which have limited airtime, and spy satellites which are rarely in the right place. The idea is to launch 24 of the SeeMe birds in an orbit which overflies the battleground every 90 minutes, burning up a month or two later when the mission has been accomplished.

The satellites themselves will weigh less than 12kg and be about the size of a cylindrical wheelie bin, and will only cost half a million dollars each. Getting them into orbit will be a little more expensive, Raytheon puts that at $1m a time based on the shiny-new Airborne Launch Assist Space Access (ALASA) platform currently being developed by DARPA.

ALASA actually aims to get launch costs down to that figure for four times the weight of a SeeMe bird but Raytheon is assuming individual launches and perhaps being a little conservative.

So launching 24 of them is going to cost $36m, which seems like a lot of money but would only buy a handful of Predator drones (at $4m a time) or a fraction of manned observation platform, even if neither of those burn up after use.

Not that 24 satellites are necessary, that just ensures that one turns up every hour and a half. Fewer satellites would give equal quality just with a longer waiting time on the ground. But at least they'll be no intermediary stalling the images, as central to the project is direct communication with the troops.

The project starts with six prototypes, which won't be launched but will test their ability to capture and transmit images, and survive the ALASA launch process. There's no huge hurry, ALASA won't complete testing until 2015 but once the bits come together the USA will be able to throw up a satellite network all but instantly, wherever they decide to have a war. ®

* SeeMe, we're told, stands for "Space Enabled Effects for Military Engagements", demonstrating that DARPA remains master of the backronym.

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