The US has taken delivery of eight nanosatellites, which the army hopes will demonstrate the viability of deploying large swarms of small low-cost tactical satellites into low orbit.

The first of the SMDC-ONE nanosatellites will be placed into orbit by the US Army Space and Missile Defense Command / Army Forces Strategic Command in 2009.

The intent of this technology demonstration is to build a number of identical satellites and deploy them together into low earth orbit to simulate enhanced tactical communications capability and evaluate nanosat performance.

Whereas nanosatellites may lack the performance and reliability of conventional satellites, they compensate through low cost and the potential for a persistent presence through the use of large numbers in constellation formations.

SMDC-ONE programme manager John London said that the satellites will only be used to test capabilities.

“These are technology demonstrators that we hope will someday lead to an operational capability. The cost estimate to integrate, test and prepare for flight for each satellite is in the 150k-200k range,” said London.

The SMDC-ONE satellites each weigh less than 10lb and are about 10cm×10cm×32cm or approximately 4in×4in×13in in size.

The nanosatellite program was announced at a meeting of the National Space Society in April, 2008. Satellites traditionally take many years to develop and cost billions of dollars, these satellites however, were produced in under a year at less then $1 million each.

The US Army is considering mission enabling upgrade features for future nanosatellites including on-board GPS capability, addition of a S-band communications link for increased data transmission, inclusion of a software defined radio for greater transceiver frequency flexibility, and modification of the communications element (radio) to increase available volume for payloads.

A nanosat constellation populated by inexpensive spacecraft could be useful in humanitarian support, stability and support operations and nation building. If some satellites are lost, they could be rapidly reconstituted.

By Daniel Garrun.