Research, Development, Test and Evaluation Spotlight: Polar Scout Program Launches

The Coast Guard Research, Development, Test and Evaluation Program and the Department of Homeland Security Science and Technology Directorate partnered together to test the capabilities of small, inexpensive satellites – known as CubeSats – through the Polar Scout Project, including the launch of two CubeSats. The results of these tests will help improve communication in the Arctic environment, monitoring large areas for illegal activity, and helping to locate persons in distress at sea.

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Written by Holly Wendelin

A rocket carrying two 6U CubeSats, dubbed Yukon and Kodiak, launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., Dec. 3, 2018, as part of the Polar Scout Project. The operation is a partnership between the Coast Guard Research, Development, Test, and Evaluation Program and the Department of Homeland Security Science and Technology Directorate. Photo courtesy of SpaceX.
A rocket carrying two 6U CubeSats, dubbed Yukon and Kodiak, launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., Dec. 3, 2018, as part of the Polar Scout Project. The operation is a partnership between the Coast Guard Research, Development, Test, and Evaluation Program and the Department of Homeland Security Science and Technology Directorate. Photo courtesy of SpaceX.

Can launching something a little larger than a softball into space improve Coast Guard mission response? We’ll soon find out as the Coast Guard Research, Development, Test and Evaluation Program has teamed up with the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to test the capabilities of small, inexpensive satellites – known as CubeSats – through the Polar Scout Project, including the launch of two CubeSats, Dec. 3, 2018.

Potential Coast Guard uses for satellites include improving communication in the Arctic environment, monitoring large areas for illegal activity, and helping to locate persons in distress at sea. Additionally, the use of satellites has the potential to reduce the time and resources spent on intensive aircraft searches as well as the risks associated with placing personnel in hazardous situations that only need sensors and communications on scene.

The Polar Scout Project started in June 2016 as a jointly funded partnership between the Coast Guard and DHS Science and Technology Directorate. Its purpose is to gain information on how government-owned space-based capabilities can be employed to solve communication and maritime domain awareness issues, especially in the polar regions. Retreating ice has increased vessel and aircraft traffic in the Arctic, making Coast Guard missions in the area more challenging and complex, and making reliable distress communications increasingly important.

The program has completed the acquisition and installation of two Mobile CubeSat Command and Control (MC3) ground stations: at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, and the U.S. Coast Guard Academy in New London, Connecticut. The bulk of the investment has gone toward fabrication and integration of two 6U CubeSats, dubbed Yukon and Kodiak, which are designed to detect 406 MHz emergency distress beacons. DHS managed the procurement of the manifest and launch of Yukon and Kodiak.

The Coast Guard Research and Development Center (RDC) installed the two MC3 ground stations that will receive the CubeSat signals during testing and demonstrations. The RDC has also funded the Department of Energy’s Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory to develop a Space Mission Architecture Design and Assessment. This assessment includes an evaluation of all potential sensors and payload combinations that could help the Coast Guard accomplish its missions.

The rocket travels into space shortly after the launch. It carries Yukon and Kodiak into a low-earth polar orbit where each satellite will travel north-south over the poles, completing a full rotation of the earth in 90 minutes. Photo courtesy of SpaceX.
The rocket travels into space shortly after the launch. It carries Yukon and Kodiak into a low-earth polar orbit where each satellite will travel north-south over the poles, completing a full rotation of the earth in 90 minutes. Photo courtesy of SpaceX.

Yukon and Kodiak were launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base, California, Dec. 3, 2018. They will achieve a low-earth polar orbit, traveling north-south over the poles; each satellite will complete a full rotation of the Earth in 90 minutes. Polar orbit satellites take advantage of the Earth’s natural rotation to cover the entire surface of the planet in a 24-hour time span. DHS and the Coast Guard will evaluate the CubeSats as a potential solution to mitigate the capability gap which exists with coverage from equatorial satellites that have limited abilities to observe activities at high latitudes due to the curvature of the Earth.

The Coast Guard Search and Rescue mission – with its requirement for the detection of emergency distress beacon signals – was identified as the perfect initial capability “use case” for several reasons. First, the Polar Scout Project will provide a much-needed assessment of potential technologies to bridge high-latitude coverage gaps. The current Cospas-Sarsat architecture is well beyond design life and the next generation constellation, Medium Earth Orbit Search and Rescue (MEOSAR) Satellite System, is not expected to reach full operational capability until between 2025 and 2030. This leaves the Coast Guard at risk for potential search and rescue coverage gaps, especially in the Arctic Region. CubeSats have the potential to bridge these gaps, augmenting search and rescue coverage until MEOSAR achieves full operational capability.

The Polar Scout Project also allows the Coast Guard and DHS to evaluate government-developed and operated space solutions, compare them to congruent commercial services and inform Coast Guard direction on future use of space-based technologies.

DHS will begin testing and demonstrations using emergency distress beacons in the Arctic beginning in early 2019 and continuing through the summer. After the satellite launch it will take approximately one month to establish contact with the satellites. After that, another four weeks will be required to initialize the satellite bus and payload.

Once initialization is complete, the Polar Scout test and evaluation team will spend about two months conducting payload characterization testing and analysis. Test and evaluation objectives include characterizing and comparing Yukon’s and Kodiak’s capability to detect, demodulate and geolocate 406 MHz distress beacons. The performance of the two CubeSats will be compared against Cospas-Sarsat performance.

The rocket’s second stage carries the CubeSats to the orbit where they will be deployed, Dec. 3, 2018. Photo courtesy of SpaceX.
The rocket’s second stage carries the CubeSats to the orbit where they will be deployed, Dec. 3, 2018. Photo courtesy of SpaceX.

In the spring, the Polar Scout Project will transition to the first of two demonstrations. The first demonstration will include deployment of a test Emergency Position-Indicating Radio Beacon (EPIRB) in an area that has yet be determined. The second demonstration will deploy a test EPIRB from the Barrow/Prudhoe Bay, Alaska region. Both demonstrations will involve various scenarios where Yukon and Kodiak are required to detect fixed reference beacons and beacons deployed from moving and stationary platforms. The CubeSats will then transmit the beacon information to the MC3 ground stations for processing.

Once testing is complete, the RDC will prepare the CubeSat Payload Mission Assessment which will include a CubeSat payload mission analysis report with CubeSat Concept of Operations scenarios that would support Coast Guard mission needs and influence CubeSat requirements.

The RDC will use knowledge gained from Polar Scout and MC3 installations, testing and demonstrations to develop a recommended CubeSat Technology Roadmap. This document will provide recommendations on how space technology can support the most pressing Coast Guard mission requirements, including development, deployment, and operation and maintenance planning factors. DHS Science and Technology Directorate will also synthesize information from the RDC and other testing with similar commercial and government-hosted space-based capabilities into an analysis of how to best utilize space capabilities for DHS missions.

The Polar Scout Project should yield a wealth of knowledge on how the Coast Guard can use satellites to enhance mission performance. For the Coast Guard, truly, the sky’s the limit!

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