The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is moving forward with a space program that could revolutionize the way satellites are procured and deployed.
The agency has awarded Orbital Sciences Corp. a one-year, $75 million contract to develop hardware that would allow satellites to share data while in orbit. In other words, the company is building an outer-space version of the Internet.
The goal is to create a web of small, wirelessly connected satellites that individually aren’t as capable as current satellites but are also more easily replaced and procured. Together, they will carry out the same missions as the bulkier satellites of today. For example, one satellite in the network might collect information while another stores it.
“We’re looking at changing the paradigm of monolithic spacecraft and breaking it into multiple modules,” says Gregg Burgess, vice president for national security space systems at Orbital, which is headquartered in Northern Virginia and produces commercial and military satellites. “This could change the whole defense acquisition environment in space today.”
The government now pays huge up-front costs to develop and launch large satellites. Under DARPA’s program, which was given the tongue-twister name Future Fast, Flexible, Fractionated, Free-Flying Spacecraft, or F6, officials could purchase these cheaper, smaller satellites one at a time and build a network over many years. The system likely would be more expensive than current satellite programs, but its costs would add up incrementally.
It would also be easier to replace damaged satellites and harder for enemies to wipe out the system with anti-satellite weapons, Burgess says. “One shot doesn’t destroy the whole capability.”
In the program’s first phase, researchers created a computer model that simulated a seven-satellite network. Next, the company will build the network infrastructure that the satellites will use to communicate with each other and with the ground. It hopes to complete that by December.
Finally, developers will build and launch three satellites — a step that’s tentatively set to be completed in 2014, according to officials at Orbital.
At that point, DARPA will have a three-satellite cluster that can be expanded. The agency is requiring Orbital to make its technology designs and software codes open source so other companies can add to the system.
Orbital is now developing the radio technology necessary for outer-space communications among satellites. “We have to show that the technology has the correct range and that it performs,” Burgess says. “It’s like Wi-Fi in the sky.”