A Spacefaring Coast Guard

This simulation shows a U.S. Coast Guard CubeSat in orbit over Alaska’s Aleutian Peninsula searching for life rafts after a storm. (Credit: Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory)

LIVERMORE, Calif. (Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory PR) — Nanosatellite technology, in particular, small cube satellites, are finding purpose in the most extraordinary places. Known as CubeSats, these miniature versions of conventional satellites can be used for applications that range from tracking space debris to monitoring atmospheric gas concentrations.

Now, Lawrence Livermore scientists and engineers are turning their expertise in CubeSat development toward assisting the U.S. Coast Guard in becoming a spacefaring agency.

Shawn Higbee, an associate program leader in the Laboratory’s Space Science and Security Program, leads the project. He says, “The Coast Guard came to us because they were excited by the promise of space and wanted to refine their strategy on where to start. So, we helped develop a strategy and technical roadmap for how small satellites could help Coast Guard missions.”

With more than a dozen mission objectives, which include search and rescue activities, iceberg monitoring operations, law enforcement, fishery protection, and homeland defense, the Coast Guard operates over vast areas of the Arctic, Pacific, and Atlantic oceans.

The rigorous demands across this remote expanse present many challenges for the Coast Guard. For example, the melting of the Arctic ice sheet and the opening of the Northwest passage have provided an avenue by which ships can now travel ocean to ocean. The lack of infrastructure in the Arctic and the increasing risks have the Coast Guard looking to CubeSats as a way of protecting these new waterways.

In 2018, two 3U CubeSat payload prototypes were developed at the Laboratory and delivered to the Coast Guard Academy for education and training. The devices are to be used by academy cadets for instructional purposes on dry land as the Coast Guard begins its journey with space technology.

The prototypes are designed for maritime domain awareness missions, but one specializes in searching for life rafts adrift in the ocean. The distinct orange color of life rafts makes it easy for the CubeSat to identify them against a backdrop of seawater.

The Coast Guard is interested in CubeSats as a cost-effective approach to improving the performance of many missions. Another advantage of having its own fleet is that it allows the Coast Guard to more easily share information with international partners and use it for law enforcement proceedings.