HUNTSVILLE, Ala. — A U.S. Army microsatellite demonstrator is hitching a ride aboard a SpaceX Dragon on a cargo resupply mission to the International Space Station.

Roughly the size of a minifridge, the satellite — along with 6,400 pounds of supplies and equipment on the spacecraft, which launched Monday at 12:31 p.m. EDT — will reach the station on Wednesday.

Kestrel Eye is a small, low-cost optical imaging satellite demonstrator that will test the utility of microsatellites in low-Earth orbit, providing images to war fighters on the ground at the tactical level during critical operations, according to Chip Hardy, the Kestrel Eye program manager at the U.S. Army Space and Missile Defense Command, or SMDC, and Army Forces Strategic Command’s Technical Center.

While the objective system would provide images rapidly directly to the ground war fighter, the demonstrator will transmit images to a ground station at SMDC in Huntsville, Ala., and to a ground station in the U.S. Pacific Command, or PACOM, area of operation, Hardy told Defense News last week at the Space and Missile Defense Symposium.

The images won’t be HDTV-crisp but will be transmitted at a “tactically useful resolution,” Hardy said.

SpaceX launches Army satellite

“The major benefit is not high-quality imagery,” Hardy said, but it brings to the table imagery fast enough to provide a unit about to begin operations real-time information about conditions on the ground where a mission is set to occur.

The satellite is expected to stay in orbit for roughly a year, but an objective system would be able to fly at a higher altitude and for a longer period of time.

The satellite will support various operations within PACOM, and perhaps elsewhere, throughout the year while it is evaluated for military utility, Hardy said.

If the satellite is damaged during its deployment, there is not much that can be done. Yet, some backup parts were sent with the system should it become damaged during its trip to the station, Hardy explained.

The Kestrel Eye program began around 2008 with a Block 1 development effort. The first version did not fly in space. The Block 2 version, which is the current effort, began in 2012 as a joint program between SMDC and the Pentagon’s Joint Capability Technology Demonstration office.

At the station, it will be deployed no sooner than the first week of October, according to the current schedule, Hardy said.

Jen Judson is an award-winning journalist covering land warfare for Defense News. She has also worked for Politico and Inside Defense. She holds a Master of Science degree in journalism from Boston University and a Bachelor of Arts degree from Kenyon College.

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