US Defense Agency Testing Nanosatellites to Counter Enemy Missiles

Costing $1.3 million a piece, the new tech may be a cheap alternative to traditional satellites
Ameya Paleja
MDA personnel preparing for CubeSat launchUS Department of Defense

On June 30th, VOX Space LLC, a subsidiary of Virgin Orbit, launched four tiny satellites for the Department of Defense. Two of these satellites are part of the Missile Defense Agency's (MDA) CubeSat Networked Communications Experiment (CNCE) Block 1. The two CubeSats are on a 90-day mission to demonstrate networked communication between them while in orbit, according to a press release from the Department of Defense.

The MDA mission could be extended to a year in duration and is part of testing aimed at the development of a low-orbit Hypersonic and Ballistic Tracking Space Sensor (HBTSS) payload. The sensor is meant to detect and track ballistic and hypersonic missile threats while providing data critical to counter them.

"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," said Walt Chai, director for space sensors at the MDA. While traditional satellites are still an option, the MDA is looking at CubeSats to test this new architecture in a quick and affordable manner.  

CubeSats are commercially produced smaller satellites that weigh less than 660 pounds (300 kg). A CubeSat unit, denoted as 1U, is a cube with roughly 4 inch (10 cm) sides and a maximum weight of just over three pounds (1.5 kg). They can be anywhere between 1U to 27U big. CubeSats are assembled using parts that are mass-produced in line with CubeSat standards, which also makes them comparatively cheap to produce. A typical CubeSat can be made for as little as $1.3 million, while traditional satellite development costs often run into the hundreds of millions. 

Due to their smaller footprint and weight, CubeSats can be launched at short notice through highly adaptive platforms such as Virgin Orbit, which was used on this occasion.  This allows for making incremental improvements to the technology with better cost control.

"The ability to use CubeSats for low-cost access to space is essential in maturing technologies for future applications in missile defense," said Shari Feth, head of the Innovation, Science, and Technology directorate at MDA. 

As of April 2021, more than 3,000 nanosatellites and CubeSats had already been launched and 2,500 further launches are forecast to take place in the next six years. 

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