US looks to tiny satellites to track N. Korea's missiles

WASHINGTON • The US is turning to Silicon Valley to improve tracking of North Korean missile launches in an effort to build a better early warning system and the capability to strike missiles while they are on the launchpad.

The government is focusing on tiny, inexpensive civilian satellites developed to count cars in Target carparks and monitor the growth of crops.

Some in the Pentagon - used to relying on highly classified, multibillion-dollar satellites, which take years to develop - resisted the move. But as North Korea's missile programme progressed, US officials laid out an ambitious schedule for the first of the small satellites to go up at the end of this year or the beginning of next.

Launched in clusters, some staying in orbit for just a year or two, the satellites would provide coverage necessary to execute a new military contingency plan called Kill Chain.

It is the first step in a strategy to use satellite imagery to identify North Korean launch sites, nuclear facilities and manufacturing capability and destroy them pre-emptively if a conflict seems imminent.

Even a few extra minutes of warning might save the lives of tens of thousands of Americans - and millions of South Koreans and Japanese who already live within range of the North's missiles.

"(North Korean leader) Kim Jong Un is racing... to deploy a missile capability," Mr Robert Cardillo, director of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, which coordinates satellite-based mapping for the government, said in an interview days before North Korea's latest launch.

The missile launch on Tuesday was initiated from a new site, a mobile launcher at the Pang Hyon Aircraft Factory.

Pentagon spokesman Jeff Davis said the missile "is not one we have seen before". That mobility is the problem that the new satellites, with wide coverage using radar sensors that work at night and during storms, are designed to address. Less than one-third of North Korea is under spy satellite coverage at a given moment.

The new satellite initiative builds on technology created more for Wall Street than the Pentagon. From an office in an old Defence Department building within view of the Google campus in California, Mr Raj Shah, director of the Defence Innovation Unit Experimental, or DIUx, is already investing in companies that exploit tiny civilian radar satellites in the hope that the Pentagon can use them by the end of the year or early next year.

"The key is using technologies that are already available and making the modifications we need for a specific military purpose," Mr Shah said. His unit made an investment to jump-start the development efforts of Capella Space, a Silicon Valley start-up named after a bright star. It plans to loft its first radar satellite late this year. The company says its radar fleet, if successfully deployed, will be able to monitor important targets hourly.

"The entire spacecraft is the size of a backpack," said Mr Payam Banazadeh, a co-founder of the company. Once in orbit, the payload would unfurl its antenna and solar panels, he added.

"Everything is getting smaller," Mr Banazadeh said of the craft's parts. "Even the next version of the satellite is getting smaller."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 08, 2017, with the headline 'US looks to tiny satellites to track N. Korea's missiles'. Print Edition | Subscribe