DARPA spends $38 million on first phase of virtual satellite network

DARPA this week opened its giant wallet to spend over $38 million for the initial development of its advanced space technology program that ultimately aims to replace traditional "monolithic" spacecraft with clusters of wirelessly-interconnected spacecraft modules.

The program, called the Future, Fast, Flexible, Fractionated, Free-Flying Spacecraft United by Information Exchange also known as the System F6, is intended to let the agency deploy individual pieces or what it calls "fractionated modules" of current all-in-one satellites. For example, each fractionated module would support a unique capability, such as command and control, data handling, guidance and navigation, 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 through a wireless network they create a virtual satellite.

According to DARPA such a virtual satellite effectively constitutes a "bus in the sky" - wherein customers need only provide and deploy a payload module suited to their immediate mission need, with the supporting features supplied by a global network of infrastructure modules already resident on-orbit and at critical ground locations. In addition, there can be sharing of resources between various "spacecraft" that are within sufficient range for communication.DARPA said the within the F6 network all subsystems and payloads can be treated like a uniquely addressable computing peripheral or network device.

The F6 network should have the qualities of the best war fighting networks of today, specifically, it should be self-forming, reliable, have high availability, and be robust and therefore self-healing, DARPA said. Such an approach can provide a long sought after "plug-n-play" capability, according to the agency.

There are numerous advantages to the fractionated approach, DARPA said:

* Diversification of launch and orbit failure risk

* Survivability enhancement from a variety of natural and manmade threats like anti-satellite (ASAT) weapons

* Reliability enhancement through sharing of subsystem resources across multiple stand alone fractionated systems

* Scalability in response to service demand fluctuations

* Upgradeability in response to technological obsolescence

* Incremental deployment of capability to orbit

* Graceful deterioration of capability on-orbit

* Robustness in response to funding fluctuations and requirements changes

* Reduced integration and testing due to subsystem decoupling

* Decoupling of requirements between modules and multiple payloads

* Decoupling of security constraints between payload(s) and rest of spacecraft

* Production learning across multiple similar modules

* Allowing spacecraft to be launched with smaller, faster vehicles* Enabling development of smaller payload nodes decoupled from spacecraft

* Reducing the economic barrier to entry for non-traditional spacecraft vendors

The first companies and their partners awarded contracts for the F6 project this week included Orbital Sciences ($13,648,758); Northrop Grumman Space and Mission Systems ($6,159,866); Boeing ($12,891,049); and Lockheed Martin Space Systems ($5,762,781).

According to DARPA during the first phase, these contractors will:

* Develop key technologies to enable the fractionated approach, including robust networking, reliable wireless communications, fault-tolerant distributed computing, wireless power transfer, and autonomous cluster navigation.

* Select a space system mission of value to a national security space stakeholder and develop a system design to accomplish that mission.

* Develop an innovative analytical approach using econometric tools that determine the risk-adjusted cost and value of a both a fractionated space system and a monolithic program of record with equivalent capability.

* Develop an evolved hardware-in-the-loop test-bed to emulate the designed fractionated spacecraft using a cluster of networked computers.

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