Pentagon officials have espoused the lofty goal of “disaggregating” massive satellites—breaking their capabilities up into smaller but more numerous spacecraft—as a way to save millions of dollars in the costly military satellite arena.

Despite the rhetoric, they haven't yet put their money where their mouth is. But that could be changing.

The dissolution of the joint Defense/Commerce Department weather satellite project, the National Polar-Orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite Systems (Npoess), combined with fiscal pressure as the government looks to reduce the national deficit, could provide the perfect backdrop for the disaggregation concept to culminate in an actual military satellite program.

After the demise of Npoess in 2010, the Pentagon and the Commerce Department agreed to part ways and develop not a single satellite capable of satisfying both of their missions, but separate purpose-built constellations for their specific needs.

Air Force officials have begun studying concepts for the defense weather satellite constellation post-Npoess. Because two legacy Defense Meteorological Satellite Program (DMSP) satellites remain ready for launch, Air Force space officials have time on their side.

This summer, the service is expected to wrap up an analysis of alternatives (AOA) for specific capabilities needed from a future weather constellation; the study began in October 2012. Historically, the Air Force's DMSP has provided electro-optical, microwave and space weather-sensing, according to Air Force procurement officials.

In parallel with the AOA, USAF issued a one-year study contract to Alliant Techsystems (ATK) to examine two pieces of what could be a future disaggregated architecture. First is the use of an existing, common, small satellite bus as the platform on which to fly a future sensor payload. USAF says the use of several small spacecraft could be more affordable than building a small number of larger satellites.

Company officials insist that buying a heritage satellite with enough frequency will pay off. Today's DMSP constellation consists of two larger main satellites in orbit; it is augmented by four legacy satellites that still provide some limited capability, according to Air Force procurement officials.

Economies of scale can be garnered with a “block” buy as low as five satellites, says Glen Cameron, business development director of space missions for ATK's defense sector. “There would be frequency and military enough [among the satellites bought] to keep the bus a commodity,” he says. In building five Themis (Time, History of Events and Macroscale Interactions during Substorms) satellites for NASA, ATK was able to significantly reduce the cost of the fifth satellite, thanks to an efficient production line. Today's military satellites, such as the Lockheed Martin Advanced Extremely High Frequency or Space-Based Infrared System, are build in fits and starts, making it hard to establish a production cadence.

For Themis, ATK was able to reduce by 20% the labor needed between the first and fifth satellites, says James Armor, a space division vice president.

Perhaps more critical to disaggregation than the platform, though, would be how the future payloads would be linked, or networked, in space and to users on the ground. ATK is also studying how to construct such an infrastructure. Ultimately, the goal is to send data directly from any one node to another via a network, Cameron says. Today's DMSP system relies on dedicated ground infrastructure and user equipment from which to distribute the data.

Cameron says ATK has been working on concepts to craft such an architecture and is merely tailoring that legacy work to this application. The goal, he says, is to rely on existing user interfaces and merely display the appropriate weather data on them rather than procure new user equipment.

“The net-centric data dissemination study will explore an alternative data dissemination architecture to reduce mission data latency and long-term operations cost,” USAF officials say.

The tricky part, however, is to ensure this new architecture is backward-compatible to the old system now interfacing with DMSP satellites, according to Cameron.

By year-end, ATK plans to demonstrate the use of existing facilities and commercial capabilities to show the “flow” of data from simulated weather sensors, Cameron says.

Meanwhile, last month the Air Force also issued a study contract to the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory to develop a low-cost, lightweight multispectral imaging system. The service expects to eventually flight-test this sensor on an aircraft.

More study contracts are to be awarded by mid-March, USAF officials say.

The service still has the 19th and 20th DMSP satellites ready for service. Flight 19 is slated for launch in 2014, and a determination to deploy the final satellite will be based on the health of the constellation. If the study activities uphold the notion that disaggregating the weather mission among various small satellites will be cost effective and suitable for the mission, a procurement is likely to follow.