The Missile Defense Agency (MDA) deployed two small nanosatellites into orbit on June 30 as part of an experiment to test networked communications and help reduce technological risk in the Hypersonic and Ballistic Tracking Space Sensor (HBTSS) program.

On July 12 MDA said these satellites, called CubeSats, started successfully communicating with ground stations over the July 4 weekend as the first step in the experiment. CubeSats typically range from four to eight inches in width and diameter, four to 13 inches in length and weigh two to 22 pounds.  

Eventually the two CubeSats are set to communicate with each other, “a feat that could play a major role in the development of U.S. missile defense technology,” MDA said in a statement.

These satellites are called the CubeSat Networked Communications Experiment (CNCE) Block 1,which is part of MDA’s Nanosat Testbed Initiative (NTI). 

The project uses these small, low-cost satellites “to demonstrate networked radio communications between nanosatellites while in orbit. Transmitting data between interceptors, sensors and communication systems is critical to a missile defense architecture that must quickly identify, track and destroy incoming enemy missiles before they reach their targets,” MDA said.

CNCE Block 1 aims to demonstrate capabilities and technologies like formation flying for small satellites; software-defined radios; ad hoc networks; communications performance in non-optimal orientations; and common, open-source, ground command and control software.

Non-optimal orientations refers to when the antennas are not necessarily pointing in the best direction like between two satellites or a satellite and a ground node.

“These satellites will test key technologies that mitigate risk for systems, such as the Hypersonic and Ballistic Tracking Space Sensor. 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,” MDA Director for Space Sensors Walt Chai said in a statement.

The planned HBTSS payload will be deployed on a constellations of satellites in low Earth orbit to detect and track both hypersonic and ballistic missile threats, helping provide additional data to missile defense systems.

“The missile defense architecture will require communications between interceptors, sensors and command and control systems to quickly identify, track and destroy incoming enemy missiles before they reach their targets. The CubeSats will allow the agency to demonstrate the capabilities quickly and affordably,” Chai added.

These CubeSats arrived in space on June 30 as part of a payload-sharing arrangement with the DoD Space Test program on the Virgin Orbit subsidiary Vox Space LauncherOne rocket launched from the Mojave Air and Space Port, Calif.

MDA plans to operate the CNCE Block 1 satellites for about 90 days, with the potential to continue for up to one year. This is only the first in a series of planned experiments.

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

“For the NTI efforts, we only need something small to take technology experiments to space in order to test in the relevant environment and gather accurate data. CubeSats are the perfect platform for this,” she continued.

DoD noted the cost per CubeSat is about $1.3 million, significantly lower than hundreds of millions of dollars needed in traditional satellite construction. It said the hardware was built, and the bus and payloads were integrated, under a rapid innovation fund contract.

Another MDA official said the main advantage to maturing technology via this nanosatellite platform is being able to divide complex challenges into more discrete parts.

“This allows us to effectively balance risk and cost by utilizing a series of phased demonstrations. Each mission leverages lessons learned from the previous mission,” Jeff Keller, chief engineer for technology maturation at MDA, added.