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US Trials Nano Satellites for Missile Defense

The US Missile Defense Agency (MDA) launched two nanosatellites, known as CubeSats, last month as part of a demonstration to see their viability within the missile defense communications architecture, the Department of Defense revealed in a statement.

CubeSats are a miniaturized, low-cost subset of nanosatellites weighing up to 1.33 kilograms (2.9 pounds) per unit. A nanosatellite weighs less than 300 kilograms (661 pounds).

In the 90-day demonstration, which may be extended up to one year, the MDA will use two CubeSats “to demonstrate networked radio communications between nanosatellites while in orbit,” the statement said.

CubeSat
A CubeSat. Image: Department of Defense

Missile Tracking Space Sensor

The agency will ensure that the CubeSats “navigate properly, receive and send signals to radios and networks and operate as intended,” the statement added.

CubeSats will play a crucial role in the Hypersonic and Ballistic Tracking Space Sensor payload functioning being developed by MDA.

The payload, to be deployed on satellites, will detect and track hypersonic and ballistic missiles and send critical information to the system.

“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,” MDA director for space sensors, Walt Chai, said.

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

Affordable Cost Crucial for Technology Maturation

CubeSats’ lower cost than traditional satellites — $1.3 million versus hundreds of millions — makes it crucial for the maturation of technologies for future applications in missile defense.

“For the NTI (Nanosat Testbed Initiative) 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,” Shari Feth, head of the Innovation, Science, and Technology directorate at MDA, said.

CubeSats
CubeSats are a miniaturized, low-cost subset of nanosatellites weighing up to 1.33 kilograms (2.9 pounds) per unit. Image: Department of Defense

Provides Unprecedented Testing Capability

NTI project lead Eric Cole explained, “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.”

“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.”

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