Mini Spy Satellites to Track Terrorists

When it comes to keeping tabs on terrorists, the U.S. military is discovering small is beautiful.

THE GIST

U.S. Special Operations is looking to use mini-satellites to keep tabs on terror suspects.

The military disclosed last month that it had tested a group of small satellites, known as CubeSats.

Space-based trackers are part of the military's growing emphasis on "high-value target" missions.

The U.S. military is developing a new technology to find and track terror suspects -- small satellites, known as CubeSats, which can be quickly and inexpensively built and launched.

"Orbital assets can provide persistent, worldwide coverage -- anywhere, anytime," Wes Ticer, spokesman with the U.S. Special Operations Command at Florida's MacDill Air Force Base, told Discovery News.

The Special Operations Command is evaluating the results of its CubeSat debut run in December. The miniature satellites, which can fit in the palm of your hand, launched aboard the Space Exploration Technologies' Falcon 9 rocket that put the company's first Dragon capsule into orbit.

"This effort was a proof-of-concept technology demonstration," Ticer wrote in an email.

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Special Operations Command is evaluating CubeSat capabilities and considering using the satellites for future missions, he added.

Keeping an eye on terrorists from space has some distinct advantages over ground- and air-based systems. Satellites can operate around the world, including areas not accessible by aircraft. CubeSats also can be less expensive to build and operate than some aerial systems, Ticer noted.

Tracking satellites are part of the military's growing focus on what it calls "high-value target" missions, such as the May raid that netted al-Qaida chief Osama bin Laden, noted Special Operations Command's Doug Richardson, who presented the program at a conference in Tampa, Fla., last month.

Special Operations' CubeSats weren't the only ones hitching rides from SpaceX. Other clients included Northrop Grumman, which partnered with Applied Minds, a Glendale, Calif.-based technology incubation firm, to test a micro-satellite called Mayflower that deployed a solar cell.

"Microsatellites are an important part of our future in advancing and maturing technologies," Northrop's Paul Meyer said in a statement.

Mayflower rode the Falcon 9 to an altitude of about 180 miles. The company expects follow-on flights to higher altitudes to test spacecraft propulsion, communication and positioning systems.

Special Operations Command did not disclose information about the specific tracking technologies tested aboard its CubeSats.

"The goal was to investigate the ability to build a satellite quickly and at low cost, use the satellite to retrieve data signals from ground transmitters and have the satellite perform command and control tasks. All objectives were achieved," Ticer wrote.

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