If the scientists at DARPA—the Pentagon’s Big Think research arm—get their way, in a few years’ time there may be networked clusters of dozens or even hundreds of small, cheap, disposable satellites working together to take the place of the large, expensive, and not easily replaced chunks of hardware currently floating around in orbit.
DARPA has spent tens of millions of dollars working on something called “System F6” (Future, Fast, Flexible, Fractionated, Free-Flying Spacecraft) for several years now, with the goal of having an ad hoc wireless network tie groups of sat clusters together so that they can autonomously share tasks like processing, data storage, sensing, communications relay and navigation, while trading off missions between them if any one sat fails, or falls out of orbit. (AvWeek’s Graham Warwick has a great piece on the program here.) While DARPA has said that it wants to conduct an on-orbit demonstration in 2014-2015, Raytheon announced on Tuesday that its BBN Technologies segment had been awarded a $2.4 million to design the network the sats will use.
Craig Partridge, principal investigator at Raytheon BBN Technologies describes his company’s approach as “developing a content-centric network” that can move information through the temporary outages the network will suffer due to the constantly changing orbits of the satellites. “We’re building an embedded computing cloud in the sky with real time requirements and multiple users,” he explains, adding that “we have to make that dynamic network safe for real-time mission critical, time critical activities.”
While DARPA hasn’t specified the size of the project, Raytheon is designing the network to handle clusters of up to 100 satellites where each satellite would have around 10 different applications running at a time, consuming and producing information. And since each “node” on the network can work independently, Partridge says, the person who creates the content doesn’t have to be immediately reachable by the person who needs the content. “If parts of the network go up and down but the content flows across when they’re up,” he says, “it will get to the person who needs it even if you don’t have a direct connection.” And while the sats are in orbit, users on the ground “can always upload new missions to them … we view it as a dynamic programming environment,” Partridge adds.
While DARPA hasn’t returned our request for comment, it’s probably safe to say that the idea here is to send up a bunch of CubeSats, small, often handheld satellites that cost anywhere from a few thousand dollars to a few hundred thousand. This means that as technology improves, new sats can be tossed up into space when needed to join the network. Many university research teams are launching the mini sats into space, and back in December, the U.S. Special Operations Command (USSOC) “sent up four [Cube] satellites to demonstrate passing TTL [tagging, tracking, locating] data” on the SpaceX rocket, USSOC’s Doug Richardson told the SOFIC conference back in May, though he wouldn’t elaborate at the time.