US wants to revamp miniature satellite research onboard space station

DARPA scientists want new algorithms, flight control technology to try out in space

Scientists are looking to develop advanced 3-D models, algorithms that control clustered flight and electromagnetic thrust technology all in the zero-gravity environment of the International Space Station

Scientists at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) said this week they were looking for new research to conduct using the Synchronized Position, Hold, Engage, and Reorient Experimental Satellites (SPHERES) experiment on the ISS.   

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The Massachusetts Institute of Technology Space Systems Laboratory developed the three SPHERES satellites and they have been onboard the ISS since 2006 to provide DARPA, NASA, and other researchers with a system that could help those agencies test technologies for use in formation flight and autonomous docking, rendezvous and reconfiguration algorithms, MIT stated. 

In this latest round of research DARPA said it is targeting four major research areas for its SPHERES, they include: 

Vision-Based Navigation Experiment: The goal of this program thrust area is to develop hardware and software to enable one or two SPHERES to construct a 3D model of another object (likely a third SPHERE, but should be applicable to any object) and that can navigate solely by reference to this 3D model. The observer SPHERES may communicate with each other, but not with the target object. DARPA anticipates awarding a single $1 million contract for this research, the agency stated. 

Electromagnetic Formation Flight & Power Transfer Experiment: Demonstrate maneuvering, and attitude control between two SPHERES using steerable electromagnetic dipoles.  Although use of thrusters is permitted where a conventional full-scale satellite might employ other, propellantless, attitude control techniques (e.g., momentum wheels), researchers are encouraged to develop technology that requires minimal or no propellant use for reconfiguration maneuvering. To the extent that the hardware developed for the electromagnetic formation flight experiment supports it with minimal modification, another goal of this program area is to demonstrate wireless power transfer through resonant inductive coupling. A single award valued at up to $1 million is anticipated for this research, DARPA stated. 

Exo-SPHERES Design Study & Prototype: The goal of this program thrust area is to design and prototype the next generation SPHERES testbed capable of testing advanced formation flight algorithms and novel hardware components. The terrestrial prototype constructed in the course of this effort should be of characteristic size and shape of the proposed full-scale design and should be capable of demonstrating all of the principal design features in a representative laboratory environment. It is desirable that at least two such terrestrial prototype units be produced and tested in the course of the effort. A single award of up to $750,000 is possible, DARPA stated. 

InSPIRE Challenge: DARPA actually talked this research up earlier this year saying it wanted to crowdsource SPHERE flight control algorithms. Specifically it wants groups of researchers to create a high-level language which makes the programming of complex cluster flight algorithms (such as sensor interrogation, filtering, path planning, path optimization, thruster control, etc.) accessible to a non-specialist audience. It also wants researchers to develop a web-based interface and collaboration environment that allow the collaborative open-source development of algorithms, their simulation, and their evaluation, DARPA stated.

According to DARPA: "Such concepts may involve, for instance, competitions, prize awards, massively-distributed collaborative development, viral campaigns, prediction markets, new ventures and may include the development of additional terrestrial or on-orbit hardware or software to interface with the existing SPHERES satellites. The ultimate objective to ensure that a substantial portion of the populace has the requisite information, motivation, and opportunity to participate in the development of spacecraft cluster control algorithms for real on-orbit hardware operating in a zero-gravity environment." 

The idea is that such applications could end up influencing applications for programs such as DARPA's Future, Fast, Flexible, Fractionated, Free-Flying Spacecraft United by Information Exchange or System F6 program which ultimately aims to replace traditional satellites with clusters of wirelessly interconnected modules.

The F6, is intended to let the military 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. 

Follow Michael Cooney on Twitter: nwwlayer8   

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