Virtual satellite cluster technology gets $75M blast

Orbital Sciences, IBM, Caltech share in DARPA’s virtual satellite contract

distributed satellite system
Scientists building the complex space technology that will replace traditional spacecraft with clusters of wirelessly-interconnected satellite modules got an almost $75 million infusion from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). 

DARPA's Future Fast, Flexible, Free-Flying, Fractionated (F6) program -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 packet-switched wireless network to create a virtual satellite. 

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According to DARPA such a virtual satellite effectively constitutes a "bus in the sky" - wherein users 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 benefits of this virtual system are many DARPA states.  For one, as components go bad or are damaged, they can be easily popped out and replaced.  Also as demands change, additional systems can be added quickly and easily. 

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

The latest contract, valued at $74.6 million, is for a year-long effort under which the Orbital Sciences team, which also includes IBM and the Caltech Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), will develop a detailed system design, complete the majority of software development, deliver additional iterations of the hardware-in-the-loop testbed to include breadboard implementation of critical hardware, and conclude with a critical design review.

 Last year DARPA awarded $38 million to Orbital Sciences; Northrop Grumman Space and Mission Systems and others to begin F6 development. 

The F6 program will culminate in a 2013 on-orbit demonstration of a fractionated space architecture, wherein a cluster of free-flying spacecraft modules wirelessly share resources and functionality to synthesize the capability of a much larger virtual spacecraft, DARPA stated. 

A series of on-orbit tests will demonstrate: the cluster reconfiguration to accommodate the insertion of new spacecraft modules, the addition of new components as network-accessible resources, rapid defensive cluster scatter and re-gather maneuvers, and the transfer of mission-critical processes throughout the cluster and to terrestrial network nodes. The program also has an explicit objective to supply infrastructure capabilities, DARPA stated. 

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