Open source tools at heart of DARPA's virtual satellite network

Open source software to help DARPA’s virtual satellite program take off

Open source software and algorithms will play a key role in the next stage of development for the military's advanced virtual satellite system that promises to replace monolithic spacecraft with clusters of wirelessly-interconnected spacecraft modules.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency's (DARPA) will next month outline the key technologies it wants to develop to build its Future, Fast, Flexible, Fractionated, Free-Flying Spacecraft or System F6 satellites.   The System F6 is intended deploy what DARPA calls  "fractionated modules" of current all-in-one satellites. For example, each 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, DARPA stated.

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Chief among the requirements being detailed next month will be the development of system software and hardware that will let operators operate and control the virtual satellite system or what DARPA called the F6 Developer's Kit (FDK).  The 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.

Another big requirement will be the development of the F6 Technology Package (F6TP), which is a hardware instantiation of the wireless connectivity, packet‐switched routing, and encryption capable of hosting the protocol stack and resource‐sharing and cluster flight software needed to enable an existing spacecraft bus to fully participate in a fractionated cluster. In essence, the F6TP is a hardware instantiation of the FDK, DARPA stated.

According to DARPA some of the technical FDK requirements include:

  • An information assurance/cybersecurity architecture that supports the sharing of common resources across multiple payloads/users at multiple security levels.
  • A network architecture starting at layer 3 that enables the unique addressability of computing nodes in the cluster and autonomous discovery, authentication, and formation. The network architecture will provide seamless routing and prioritization of data across multiple cluster‐to‐ground data paths, enabling the sharing of data between nodes and the transfer of latency‐insensitive tasks between a space‐based and terrestrially‐based computing resource, while guaranteeing the real-time delivery of critical data across the network for mission‐critical applications.
  • A middleware architecture enabling resource sharing of common infrastructure resources (such as computing, data storage, communication relay, navigation sensing) that is useful to multiple payloads. The middleware architecture will dynamically allocate resources amongst multiple payloads, providing guaranteed performance for mission critical applications. In addition, the middleware will provide the necessary mechanisms and protocols to enable publishing of data across the cluster network and the ability to transfer applications between any two computing node.
  • A fault detection and recovery architecture that provides semi‐autonomous fault management at the cluster‐level. The fault detection and recovery architecture will integrate with any spacecraft‐level fault management system, letting each spacecraft independently maintain safety‐critical functions at any point, while managing resources and anomalies such as transient outage as a result of orbital maneuvers, module entry/exit from the cluster and reallocation of resources due to equipment faults.
  • A parallel development activity is the design of cluster flight algorithms and the subsequent development of cluster flight software. The principal technical problem DARPA wants to address is the ability for the system to safely control clustered flight and "simultaneous capability for rapid maneuver planning as needed for a defensive scatter maneuver, which remains a significant theoretical novelty and practical implementation challenge," DARPA stated.
  • The FDK focuses on the protocol specification at the network layer and above. The key objective of this technical area is the development of a wireless communication standard that interfaces with other subsystems and maximizes network availability, Quality of Service , network throughput, flexibility, scalability, and redundancy and safety‐critical standards; while minimizing processing, memory and required bandwidth overhead.

DARPA's F6 briefing will be held September 30 in Arlington, VA.

If all goes well, the System F6 program will culminate in an on-orbit demonstration in 2014.

Follow Michael Cooney on Twitter: nwwlayer8  

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