Currently, nanosatellites are being designed to support communication and overhead imagery, but as other technologies and sensors become smaller and more efficient, the potential for this new approach to space-based capabilities is endless. Titled SNaP-3, the nanosatellite project came about as one of many other technological endeavors tackled by the team of experts at SOUTHCOM’s Science, Technology and Experimentation Division. The mission of this group, established in 2002, is to take unsolved requirements identified by U.S. and partner nation forces and reach out to science and technology experts in the United States and Latin America to provide solutions. Although a clever and low cost tool for military and civilian purposes, nanosatellites still depend on the current inventory of large military grade rockets to be launched into space. Finding suitable “commuting” opportunities for nanosatellites is challenging and time consuming, admits Hurtado. To solve that part of the equation, the Space and Missile Defense Command is also developing a low-cost small satellite launch vehicle, which can support rapid launch requirements to meet the vision of more responsive space support. By Dialogo March 22, 2013 The Science, Technology and Experimentation Division is already in conversations with partner nations to determine details such as the site for the operational demonstration, the military and/or civilian organizations that will participate in these, and the hypothetical scenarios for testing the technology in realistic situations. Unlike their larger counterparts, which can weigh tons and are several meters long, nanosatellites are slim and light. Thanks to the advances in microchip technologies, they are little boxes that can be held in the palm of your hand. A Reality Check The United States Southern Command (SOUTHCOM) is looking to space technologies to respond to the communication requirements for the battlefield. And, in this quest, the Command is placing big hopes on small and inexpensive satellites. These platforms are known as cubesats, or more commonly, as nanosatellites. As a huge plus, nanosatellites also come with a miniaturized price tag, a tiny fraction of the cost of traditional satellites. This translates into the potential to save hundreds of millions of dollars for space-based capabilities. Among the characteristics of these miniature space travelers, Hurtado mentioned the ability to rapidly deploy a nanosatellite cluster – also called constellation – “on demand” to support a specific area in response to unpredictable events such as tsunamis or earthquakes. Such constellations can also provide much needed situational awareness in support of SOUTHCOM’s mission requirements. Currently, the U.S. Army’s Space and Missile Defense Command is building three nanosatellites for SOUTHCOM. The plan is to launch these nanosatellites by the end of 2013. In this case, the requirement was better access to beyond-line-of-sight tactical communications when troops are on the move, deployed in remote or hard-to-reach areas such as the thick jungles of Colombia or the rough landscapes of Peru. The technology is also valuable for long distance ship to shore communications, to mention just a few applications. Additionally, SNaP-3 nanosatellites will have the ability to provide data exfiltration from unattended ground sensors. In addition to SOUTHCOM and the U.S. Space and Missile Defense Command, the third party involved in the SNaP-3 project is the Rapid Fielding Directorate within the Office of the U.S. Secretary of Defense. “The Rapid Fielding Directorate looks for innovative concepts that transform the way we do business. They are the project sponsors,” explains Hurtado. After the nanosatellites are launched into space, the SNaP-3 initiative will enter the operational demonstration phase, scheduled to happen as soon as in the spring of 2014. “In today’s world, the cost of traditional satellites limits their availability, but nanosatellites are inexpensive, making future access to space in support of regional security efforts both affordable and responsive. For example, future concepts envision the ability to deploy communications nanosatellites in support of natural disaster response within 24 to 48 hours of its occurrence,” explains Juan Hurtado, senior technology advisor to SOUTHCOM, and head of the Command’s Science, Technology and Experimentation Division. So far, the project has spiked interest from partner nations such as Brazil and Chile, countries which are investing in space initiatives, reveals Hurtado. “We believe nanosatellites are an important part of the future, and our partner nations will be key in assessing the value of this prototype under coalition military scenarios,” he concludes.