DARPA plans a network of virtual satellites

Miniature orbiters would share resources via wireless links

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is developing technology to make future satellites and other spacecraft smaller, more decentralized and virtual.

The defense research arm is refocusing its System F6 (Future, Fast, Flexible, Fractionated, Free-Flying Spacecraft United by Information Exchange) spacecraft demonstrator program to “emphasize development of an open and ubiquitous space architecture and an associated set of open standards," according to a recent announcement.

The goal of the fractionated spacecraft concept is to replace large individual spacecraft such as weather and communications satellites, with clusters of smaller, wirelessly linked modules that share resources and form a “virtual satellite.”

According to Paul Eremenko, System F6’s program manager, refocusing the effort will introduce new perspectives and approaches. He said that an explicit goal is to allow payloads provided by different agencies, services or even countries to share a common infrastructure as different security levels. “It is a unique architectural approach to enhancing the adaptability, survivability and responsiveness of future space assets — and really changing the dynamics of the space industry by lowering the barrier to entry,” he said.

The program’s new emphasis is to develop real-time, fault-tolerant resource sharing over wireless cross links; algorithms for “safe and agile” multi-body cluster flights; persistent broadband communications between low-Earth orbiting spacecraft and the ground; and a robust and scalable multi-level information assurance architecture. The fruits of these efforts are scheduled to culminate in an orbital demonstration in 2014.

During the orbital demonstration, DARPA hopes to prove the feasibility of a shared on-orbit infrastructure, wireless spacecraft component replacement, persistent broadband communications from LEO and a defensive cluster scatter/regather capability to avoid space debris.

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