US defense agency tests nanosatellites against missiles

On June 30, 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 (MDA) CubeSat Networked Communications Experiment (CNCE) Block 1. The two CubeSats are on a 90-day mission to demonstrate networked communication between them in orbit, according to a Press release of the Ministry of Defense.

The MDA mission could be extended for up to a year and is part of the tests aimed at the development of a hypersonic ballistic tracking space sensor (HBTSS) payload in low orbit. The sensor is intended to detect and track ballistic and hypersonic missile threats while providing critical data 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 of space sensors at MDA. While traditional satellites are still an option, MDA turns to CubeSats to test this new architecture quickly and affordably.

CubeSats are smaller commercially produced satellites that weigh less than 660 pounds (300 kg). A CubeSat unit, denoted 1U, is a cube about 4 inches (10 cm) square and weighing at most just over three pounds (1.5 kg). They can be anywhere between 1U and 27U. CubeSats are assembled using mass-produced parts according to CubeSat standards, which also makes them relatively inexpensive to produce. A typical CubeSat can be manufactured for as little as $ 1.3 million, while the costs of developing traditional satellites often run into the hundreds of millions.

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

“The ability to use CubeSats for low-cost access to space is essential for maturing technologies for future applications in missile defense,” said Shari Feth, Chief Innovation, Science and Technology Officer at MDA.

In April 2021, more than 3,000 nanosatellites and CubeSats had already been launched and 2,500 more launches are expected to take place over the next six years.

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