Doubts still hang over the military utility of small satellites, holding back progress on low-cost, quick-reaction systems that could be launched at short notice to fill gaps in space coverage.

To prove their viability, the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (Darpa) has begun a program to demonstrate that small satellites produced and launched on demand can provide imagery on request directly to individual soldiers.

Darpa’s goal is to show that a constellation of 24 satellites, each weighing less than 100 lb., can be launched into low Earth orbit (LEO) at a fraction of the cost of acquiring additional unmanned aircraft to provide the same imagery.

Raytheon has received the first contract under the Space Enabled Effects for Military Engagements (SeeMe) program. The $1.5 million contract is for the nine-month first phase to design a small imaging satellite. Darpa says other contracts will be awarded as well.

Darpa’s Airborne Launch Assist Space Access (Alasa) program is developing the booster to launch the SeeMe satellites quickly and affordably. Alasa is to be air-launched at short notice from a tactical fighter or business jet with minimal modification to the aircraft.

Darpa’s goal is to “prove the military utility of very small satellites by attacking the problem from a system perspective, to show that if you have both [small satellites and small launchers] you can get useful data,” says Randy Gricius, SeeMe program manager at Raytheon Missile Systems.

Under Phase 1 of SeeMe, Raytheon has received a nine-month, $1.5 million contract to design a small imaging satellite that can be produced and launched on demand, to provide 1-meter-resolution visible imagery on request direct to the handheld devices of individual soldiers.

Launched into LEO, each satellite will orbit the Earth every 90 min., with a constellation of 24 providing persistent coverage. By pressing the “SeeMe” button on a smartphone, a soldier on the ground will request imagery of his surroundings. A satellite will hear the request, reorient its sensor to the soldier’s location, take the image and transit it back within minutes.

At 100 lb. or less — Raytheon’s design weighs in at less than 44 lb. — the SeeMe satellite is a fraction of the size of existing “operationally responsive spacecraft” (ORS) concepts. “ORS-class is around 400 lb., which is still a fairly good size,” he says. “We are a missile house – 7-in.-dia. is pretty big for us.”

A major challenge of the SeeMe program will be enabling affordable, “non-continuous” production to meet the $500,000 unit-cost target for imaging satellites produced on demand, on a timeline of 90 days from order to launch.

The Alasa program is targeting a $1 million per flight launch cost for a sub-100-lb. satellite. SeeMe satellites could be launched in batches in larger boosters, but “we need an Alasa-class vehicle to be affordable,” Gricius says.

Plans call for six SeeMe satellites to be produced early in fiscal 2015 for ground testing, followed by a production run of 20 more, with Alasa launches beginning in the fourth quarter of that year.