DARPA building test bed for virtual satellite clusters

US wants to build cluster of 4 wirelessly-interconnected satellites for a 6-month demonstration mission for 2015 launch

Scientists at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) will next month detail what technology they need to build a cluster of 4 wirelessly-interconnected satellites for a 6-month demonstration mission to launch in early to in mid-2015.

The testbed is yet another component of DAPRA's ambitious F6 program is intended to ultimately deploy what DARPA calls "fractionated modules" or individual small satellites that can act together as a traditional large spacecraft. In such an environment, each module would support a unique capability, such as command and control, data handling, guidance, navigation and payload. Modules could replicate the functions of other modules as well. Such modules can be physically connected once in orbit or remain nearby to each other in a loose formation, or cluster, harnessed together as a virtual satellite, DARPA stated.

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Such architecture has the potential to significantly enhance the adaptability and survivability of satellites, while also shortening development time for complex space systems and reducing the barrier-to-entry for participation in the national security space industry, DARPA says.

DARPA says the F6 On-Orbit Demo Testbed will be made up of four satellite buses with a number of technical requirements including:

  • Host a Government-furnished Swift Broadband Satellite transceiver which utilizes the Broadband Global Area Network supported by the Inmarsat I-4 GEO constellation to provide persistent (near 24/7) on-demand broadband connectivity from the F6 demo cluster in low-earth orbit (LEO) to the ground network;
  • Supply and host a high-speed space-to-ground downlink transmitter and provide associated data exfiltration capability;
  • Supply and host a high-performance computing element that incorporates innovative and cost-effective processor architectures;
  • Host a Government-furnished mission sensor payload, while maximizing size, weight, power, and field-of-view capabilities.

The testbed satellites will need to hit on some important objectives such as:

1. The capability to perform semi-autonomous long-duration maintenance of a cluster and cluster network including the ability to add and remove modules;

2. The capability to securely share resources across the cluster network with real time guarantees and among payloads or users in multiple security domains;

3. The capability to autonomously reconfigure the cluster to retain safety and mission critical functionality in the face of network degradation or component failures;

4. The capability to perform a defensive cluster scatter and re-gather maneuver to rapidly evade a debris-like threat.

The testbed program will culminate in a 6-month on-orbit demo mission, with an estimated launch in early to mid-2015, DARPA said.  Details of the System F6 On-Orbit Demonstration Testbed will be shared on Thursday, May 3, 2012 in Arlington, VA.

The testbed announcement is but one part of the F6 program.  In November DARPA issued a call for computer chip and electronics manufacturers to help it build the wireless communication system is will use to facilitate F6. 

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From DARPA: "Essentially a network computing device, the F6 physically connects to and provides switching and routing functions between the spacecraft bus, the wireless inter-satellite transceivers, shared resource payloads (such as  high-powered computing, data storage, and other communications links) and mission payloads such as sensors.  The F6 serves as the hardware platform running the software that enables cluster networking including the network protocol stack, real-time resource sharing middleware, cluster flight applications and mission-specific applications. The F6 also provides cryptographic capability and other security features that enable a multi-level security environment. "

Small, wirelessly-networked, energy efficient systems with sophisticated security policies and powerful processors are commonplace in today's world. They are not, however, state of the art in space, DARPA said.   "Today's space electronics are clunky," said Paul Eremenko, DARPA program manager in a statement. "They provide limited processing speed and capability, they're bulky and power-hungry, and they are manufactured as bespoke, one-of-a-kind products."

DARPA has also detailed the system software that will let operators operate and control the F6 virtual satellite system.  The F6 Developer's Kit (FDK) is a set of open source interface standards, protocols, behaviors, and reference implementations thereof, necessary for any party, without any contractual relationship to any System F6 performer, to develop a new module that can fully participate in a fractionated cluster.

A variety of companies have been participating in early F6 development including Boeing L3 Communications, Millennium Space Systems, Octant Technologies, and Science Applications International Corp. Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman Juniper Networks, IBM and Orbital Sciences.

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