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. Credit: Handout.

The cost per satellite is about US$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 contract.

So what the heck do they do?

Well, for one, they may be the answer to Putin’s deadly hypersonic air force — you know, those juking and jiving income missiles, that come down on our heads, at Mach 20.

According to a report by David Vergun, at the US Department of Defense, two Missile Defense Agency (MDA) nano-satellites — known as CubeSats — that launched June 30 into low-earth orbit from the Mojave Air and Space Port in California, are showing spectacular promise.

Remember that small kid, in your neighborhood, that you underestimated — the kid who was meaner than a junkyard dog?

Well, welcome to The CubeSat Networked Communications Experiment Block 1.

The little guy on the block — and a weapon that just could play a large role in the future of US missile defense.

Part of MDA’s Nanosat Testbed Initiative, it 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.

Missile Defense Agency’s Nanosat Testbed Initiative and VOX Space systems engineers insert a CubeSat Networked Communications Experiment Block 1 satellite into a dispenser at VOX Space integration facility in Long Beach, Calif., June 2021. Photo By: VOX Space Photo.

“These 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.”

MDA is also developing the Hypersonic and Ballistic Tracking Space Sensor payload.

When eventually deployed on satellites in low earth orbit, it will — potentially — detect and track hypersonic and ballistic missile threats and provide critical data to the Missile Defense System and the warfighter. 

That’s the idea, anyway.

Somehow, I’m not sure Mr. Putin is shaking in his boots, at the thought of CubeSats.

But, the DOD seems optimistic.

“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,” Chai said.

“The CubeSats will allow the agency to demonstrate the capabilities quickly and affordably.”

According to the release, CubeSat missions will 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 nano-satellites.

A CubeSat Networked Communications Experiment Block 1 satellite is shown with solar arrays stowed at Space Dynamics Laboratory, North Logan, Utah, June 2, 2021. Photo By: SDL Photo.

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.

The standard 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.

In other words, much, much cheaper. Think Costco on a Tuesday morning, when nobody is in the check-out line.

“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,” said Eric Cole, NTI project lead for MDA.

“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 more viable.”

CubeSat payloads also enjoy the cost benefits from commercial CubeSat technology, but they tend to be more specialized.

Missile Defense Agency’s Nanosat Testbed Initiative and VOX Space systems engineers insert a CubeSat Networked Communications Experiment Block 1 satellite into a dispenser at VOX Space’s integration facility in Long Beach, Calif., June 2021. Photo By: VOX Space Photo.

For MDA’s CNCE Block 1 experiment, there could also be commercial applications.

“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 define and tailor a quality, safety and mission-assurance approach to balance risk and development costs, the release said.

The CubeSats 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 Bus).

Source: US Department of Defense, The Defense Post