Magazine article National Defense

'Virtual Satellites': Scientists Pursue Flexible, Adaptable Space Systems

Magazine article National Defense

'Virtual Satellites': Scientists Pursue Flexible, Adaptable Space Systems

Article excerpt

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

ANAHEIM, Calif. -- The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is predicting that in the future "virtual satellites" circling the globe will peer down on enemy forces.

Instead of one expensive 10,000-pound spacecraft, the spy camera will float alone, unattached to other components. The onboard processor and communications node, for example, will orbit nearby and the three building blocks in this system will be linked wirelessly.

The System F6 program--future fast, flexible, fractionated, free-flying spacecraft united by information exchange--would allow the Air Force or the National Reconnaissance Office to easily swap out outdated or broken components.

"Flexibility and the technology that enables it is the cornerstone of DARPA's vision of a new space architecture," Owen Brown, a program manager in the agency's virtual space office, said at the DARPATech conference.

Founded 50 years ago in response to the Soviet Union's launch of the Sputnik satellite, DARPA was a key player in creating today's U.S. military space architecture. Now the agency wants to tear that structure down and create new paradigms for space-based systems.

The key word, project managers stressed, is "flexibility."

Today's giant military spacecraft take anywhere from five to 10 years to complete the development cycle. As they are being built, technology advances, making some of their components outdated as soon as they reach orbit. To prevent catastrophic failure in orbit, redundancy must be built in, which adds weight, space and cost to the system.

These so-called monolithic spacecraft are vulnerable to launch failures, software engineering bugs or component malfunction that could set a program back by billions of dollars and years of development, Brown said.

Such satellites are "configured to solve tomorrow's problems using yesterday's technologies," he added.

The advantages of the F6 program are many, he asserted.

Program managers could change out software or hardware anytime during the spacecraft's lifecycle by sending up a smaller, less expensive replacement. A spy satellite could be changed in orbit to a communication satellite by adding a new node. It would also alleviate the "engineering nightmare" of having multiple sensing payloads on one spacecraft, Brown said.

The F6 concept is one of many programs in the revitalized virtual space office. After the Commission to Assess United States National Security Space Management and Organization in 2001 highlighted the vulnerability of U.S. space assets, DARPA refocused its efforts on its space program.

The commission recommended that the U.S. military and the agency invest in cutting edge space concepts. DARPA has responded with a $400 million annual space budget, said Steven Walker, deputy director of the tactical technology office and head of the virtual space office.

On Jan. 11, six years to the day after the commission released its report, China used a rocket to destroy one of its own spacecraft. The anti-satellite demonstration further reinforced the need to create "flexible" space systems, Walker said.

"Like Sputnik, this action should serve as a wake-up call," he said.

The virtual space program has five divisions: access infrastructure, where the F6 program resides; space situational awareness; mission protection; and, space-based support to the war fighter, which seeks to better tie space assets to soldiers and commanders on the ground. …

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