January 20, 2014
National-security space programs have become so slow and costly that the U.S. faces the “self-inflicted surprise” of other nations being able to put capabilities into orbit much faster, says the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (Darpa) director.
Formed in 1958 to prevent a repeat of the “technological surprise” of the Soviet Union's Sputnik satellite launch, the Pentagon agency has embarked on a group of projects intended to make access to space quicker and cheaper. It is an effort to counter what Darpa Director Arati Prabhakar sees as a troubling development “to do with how slow and costly it is for us to do anything we need to do on orbit for national security purposes.”
The projects involve lower-cost, more-responsive launch systems for smaller satellites; building blocks that allow spacecraft to be produced more rapidly and cheaply; robotic technology to assemble, upgrade or repurpose satellites in orbit; and sensors to see and control what is going on in space.
Speaking at the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics' SciTech 2014 conference here last week, Prabhakar said that as commercial and foreign space activity increases, the U.S. is “freezing in place . . . in terms of our ability to react and do what we need to do quickly, cost-effectively in space.” This is putting at risk the precise, lethal warfare capability “that is a core element of our national security today . . . [but is] simply not possible without the assets we have in space,” she says.
Over the past two decades, U.S. launches have declined and shifted to larger and heavier government satellites, and prices have increased, says Antonio Elias, chief technical officer for Orbital Sciences Corp. At the same time, international launches have increased, he told the conference.
Darpa's involvement in space has waxed and waned over the years, and it has targeted smaller, faster, cheaper satellite launches in the past. Agency funding helped Orbital Sciences develop the air-launched Pegasus, and Space Exploration Technologies develop the Falcon. But programs like Rascal, to develop an aircraft-based small-satellite launcher and System F6 to “fractionate” satellites into clusters of smaller formation-flying spacecraft, were terminated before hardware was flown.
But Darpa is always willing to try again. It has initiated the Airborne Launch Assist Space Access (Alasa) project to air-launch 100-lb. satellites into low Earth orbit for $1 million; the XS-1 reusable spaceplane to launch 3,000-5,000-lb. payloads for $5 million; and the Phoenix program to reuse non-working satellites in orbit by robotically attaching building-block “satlets.” Darpa believes such technologies can both unlock the commercial market for small satellites and finally persuade the Pentagon to “disaggregate” its big, expensive satellites into fleets of smaller craft that can be launched more quickly for less money.