Sometime between 8:00 p.m. and midnight EST tonight--weather permitting, of course--the U.S. Air Force plans to do something it rarely, if ever, does: launch a reconnaissance satellite that’s cheaper and less sophisticated than the one it launched previously. When the AF’s 80,000 pound Minotaur rocket launches from Wallops Island, Va., it will carry into space the first Operationally Responsive Space satellite (ORS-1), part of a larger initiative to put cheaper, smaller, and simpler intelligence satellites into space.
ORS-1 cost the AF less than $100 million (that’s cheap for a spy satellite) and went from drawing board to launch-ready in about 30 months (also impressive). It’s headed for a 250-miles-high orbit that will be convenient for peering into the Af/Pak region where U.S. troops are operating. It sports no fancy new technology, but the same SYERS-2 sensor package and software that is carried by manned U-2 spy planes.The launch marks the culmination of a shift in the way the U.S. military approaches its space recon technology and the strategic and financial costs associated with it. The ORS office has been given the task of shrinking the size and price tag associated with lofting reconnaissance hardware into orbit--a priority that unsurprisingly moved up the AF’s list about the same time China started testing anti-satellite missiles.