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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

By Layer 8 on Mon, 04/23/12 - 1:49pm.

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.