Air Force extends plug-and-play spacecraft

Air Force wants to build satellites in days, not months

afrl tacsat plu-n-play
Looking to build strategic satellites in day if need be, rather than months, the Air Force is pushing forward with what it calls plug-and-play spacecraft

This week it awarded a $500,000 order to Northrop Grumman to begin designing the plug-and-play spacecraft "bus" which will offer standard interfaces for a variety of payload components, much like a laptop computer that immediately recognizes new hardware when it's plugged in, Northrop stated. The order was awarded under a contract that has a ceiling of $200 million. 

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Early in-house plug-and-play development at the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) whicih is in charge of the satellite systems-focused on an architecture that provides an interface for spacecraft components through a TCP/IP compliant router with a standard power interface, the Air Force stated.  Individual components insert themselves to the network through a pre-programmed Appliqué Sensor Interface Module (ASIM) which is analogous to a USB interface on a PC.  The ASIM contains an electronic data sheet describing the requirements and capabilities of the individual component. The network is then able to quickly recognize what the component does from the moment it is plugged in and turned on, the Air Force stated. 

Northrop Grumman is expected at this point to deliver a study that will outline how the AFRL can reduce cost and develop future plug-and-play space systems.    

The notion of plug-an-play satellites is not new - the AFRL has been looking at developing such technology since 2005.  In 2006 in fact the AFRL spent some $17M in to develop what it called commodity spacecraft components. 

And the series of military reconnaissance satellites known as  TacSats utilize some of the plug-and-play technologies developed to this point by the AFRL and others. TacSats 1-3 have been launched and it remains to be seen what will happen with TacSats 4 and 5.  TacSat 4 for example was originally slated to launch in September but has been delayed. 

How successful these modular satellites will be is a subject of much debate.  The Government Accountability Office last year said that the DOD has made progress in developing interface standards for satellite buses-the platform that provides power, altitude, temperature control, and other support to the satellite in space-and continued its sponsorship of efforts aimed at acquiring low cost launch vehicles. Despite this progress, the GAO said it was too early to determine the overall success of these efforts because most are still in their initial phases. 

The GAO also stated that the current alternatives for launching the smaller satellites ranging in cost from about $21 million to $28 million Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle and Minotaur launch vehicles - do not meet DOD's low cost goal. DARPA expects its responsive launch capabilities, currently in development, will total about $5 million to produce-a significantly lower cost than that of current capabilities. However, in order to achieve the lower cost launch capability, DOD will have to continue to fund research beyond the $15.6 million already spent on advanced technology development, facilities, test-range and mission support, and program office support.

Low-cost satellites are hot ocmmodidties though. NASA last year it would team with m2mi to develop very small satellites, called nanosats which weigh between 11 to 110lb, for the development of telecommunications and networking services in space.

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