The ability to fly a cluster of microsatellites in close formation will be demonstrated in 2003 under a $35 million US Air Force contract awarded to a team led by ITN Energy Systems.

The Air Force Research Laboratory's TechSat 21 flight experiment will demonstrate technologies including satellite inspection, remote sensing and broadband communications. Microsatellites, weighing only 120kg (260lb), could be launched by fighter aircraft, says the USAF.

Wheat Ridge, Colorado-based ITN leads a team including Ball Aerospace & Technologies, Broach Reach Engineering, Global Solar Energy and Lockheed Martin Astronautics. The team will contribute $10 million of the $35 million demonstration costs.

Three 120kg microsatellites will be launched in late 2003 on a single booster. Each will carry a synthetic aperture radar and ionospheric sensor, orbiting the Earth in close formation. They will "talk" to each other and share data processing, payload and mission functions. The cluster will be managed as a single virtual satellite. Potential applications include global positioning, weather monitoring and Earth mapping.

Source: Flight International