By Jason B. Cutshaw
USASMDC/ARSTRAT Public Affairs
REDSTONE ARSENAL, Ala. -— While the Army has long been considered America’s land force, many of the Army’s Soldiers and civilians depend upon space to perform their missions.
One of the U.S. Army Space and Missile Defense Command/Army Forces Strategic Command’s newest prototypes is Kestrel Eye, a small, low-cost, visible-imagery satellite designed to provide near real-time images to the tactical-level ground Warfighter. Kestrel Eye, developed by the command’s Technical Center, was deployed into space and activated Oct. 24.
“Kestrel Eye is a technology demonstrator, but it holds the promise of providing tactical imagery to the Warfighter, and to do it responsively, persistently and reliably,” said John R. London III, SMDC Space and Strategic Systems Directorate chief engineer. “This is a game changing capability for the Army because for the first time commanders in the field will be able to control the entire imagery process from end-to-end, from the tasking of the satellite all the way through to the dissemination of the data to the Soldiers who need it.
“It is the validation of an idea we had 11 years ago that space data does not have to be expensive or only available to a few senior leaders,” he added. “Kestrel Eye will demonstrate how tactical imagery can be made available to individual Soldiers in the field, rapidly and inexpensively.”
London said he was contacted by Maj. Fred Kennedy at Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA, in 2006 about the possibility of SMDC taking over the Kestrel Eye program from DARPA as they did not plan to carry the program beyond the conceptual design stage.
“I felt like it was a very nice match for SMDC since we were just starting to look at technology investments in tactical space systems for the Army,” London said. “Kestrel Eye held the promise of providing on-demand imagery of any spot on earth for the Army Warfighter, something that had never been available before.” London added, “And the projected price for a single Kestrel Eye satellite indicated that the acquisition of a large number of satellites to enable persistent coverage could be acceptable.”
Kestrel Eye was launched to the International Space Station as a payload aboard the SpaceX Falcon 9 from Kennedy Space Center, Florida, on Aug. 14 as part of the ISS cargo resupply mission, SpaceX CRS-12.
“The high had to be seeing the Falcon 9 launch vehicle lift off the pad bound for the ISS, with the Kestrel Eye Block II spacecraft on board,” London said. “This happened almost 11 years after that phone call from Maj. Kennedy, so it was an emotional moment.” London noted that experiencing the launch from the Kennedy Space Center viewing platform along with the Kestrel Eye team was very special.
The Army hopes to demonstrate the military utility of providing rapid situational awareness directly to Army brigade combat teams. Kestrel Eye will enhance situational awareness of the brigade combat teams by providing satellite imagery without the need for conventional continental U.S.-based relays.
London talked about the escalating excitement for Kestrel Eye deployment. He said it represents the end of a long road and a lot of hard work by many people at SMDC; the Joint Capability Technology Demonstration team at the Office of the Secretary of Defense; NASA; U.S. Pacific Command; Program Executive Office, Missiles and Space; Assistant Secretary of the Army (Acquisition, Logistics and Technology); the Department of Defense Space Test Program; and industry partners.
“Those of us who work in the development of new space technologies don’t always get to see the culmination of our labors in a significant successful event,” London said. “With Kestrel Eye launch and deployment, the entire team, along with all who supported the program over the years, got to see this very significant success.”
Now that Kestrel Eye is deployed a safe distance from ISS, the satellite will power up automatically and be ready to receive signals from the ground station then transition into the first of four major phases.
The first phase is a technical checkout to verify satellite functionality and make any necessary adjustments. The second phase is a technical demonstration of the satellite to demonstrate full capability.
The third phase is the operational demonstration conducted by the Kestrel Eye Joint Capability Technology Demonstration Combatant Command partner, U.S. Pacific Command. In the operational demonstration, a limited military utility assessment will be conducted by the independent assessor, Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command. The fourth is residual operations where Kestrel Eye will participate in a series of Army exercises.
“All those involved are excited to have this deployment occur in order to finally see Kestrel Eye operate,” said Wheeler “Chip” Hardy, Kestrel Eye program manager, SMDC Tech Center’s Space and Strategic Systems Directorate. “Many people have invested long hours and hard work to get to this point, and we will soon see the payoff of that investment. This program has been exciting to work because of the technology and the exceptional team of SMDC people working it with me.”
“The deployment and subsequent demonstrations are the culmination of a long development process,” he added. “We are all looking forward to those first Kestrel Eye images to show what a satellite of this type can provide for the tactical Army Warfighter at the leading edge of the fight.”
The Kestrel Eye satellite is designed to be tactically responsive, with the ability to task and receive data during an overhead pass and provide a measure of satellite persistence overhead that can provide situational awareness and images rapidly to the Warfighter. In addition, the satellite will help Army forces fight across multiple domains to counter enemy threats.
Astronaut Mark Vande Hei, a retired Army colonel who retired from the U.S. Army Space and Missile Defense Command/Army Forces Strategic Command in August 2016, deployed Kestrel Eye from the ISS.
“This is a huge honor for me. I have received so many opportunities from my military experience that any time I’m able to give back is always a pleasure,” Vande Hei said. “It is pretty neat to have been on the receiving end of the benefits of satellites and now to be able to participate, very directly, in the low-Earth orbit aspects of space technology.”
Vande Hei praised the team for their work on Kestrel Eye.
“The Army is a team of teams within teams where every role is extremely important,” Vande Hei said. “The incredible dedication of every member of the SMDC workforce in getting the details right and taking the initiative to continually progress is allowing us to accomplish incredible things.”