DARPA aims to replace regular satellites with floating clusters

In the near future, satellites may come in pieces. That’s the goal of a new effort launched by the Defense Departments research and development agency — to fly clusters of small spacecraft that communicate with each other and which work together to perform the work of a traditional single-piece satellite.

The Defense Advanced Research Project Agency’s System F6 program seeks to develop technologies to build and deploy “disaggregated” satellites. These groups of small satellites would share information and a variety of capabilities over their own wireless networks, such as communications links, sensors and data storage.

By spreading out these various capabilities among a group of replaceable spacecraft, DARPA hopes to create platforms that are much more survivable, adaptable and repairable than traditional satellites.

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A recent proposal outlined the System F6 program and described its three parts:

  • The F6 Developer’s Kit (FDK): A set of open-source, exportable, non-proprietary interface standards, protocols, software and reference information that will allow any participating company to develop a spacecraft design that can participate in a satellite cluster.
  • The F6 Tech Package (F6TP): This is network computing device that physically connects to and provides data switching and routing between the spacecraft bus, wireless inter-module transceivers, shared resource payloads such as high performance computing, data storage and mission payloads such as sensors and hosted payloads.
  • The F6 On-Orbit Demonstration Testbed: This will provide affordable satellite buses for the demonstration cluster, host the F6TP and inter-satellite communications crosslinks on each spacecraft, provide or host additional payloads, and provide support for integration and orbital demonstration operations.

An in-person proposers’ day will take place May 3 in Arlington, Va. At the event, DARPA will provide information on the progress of the System F6 program’s multiple efforts and provide details of the System F6 On-Orbit Demonstration Testbed broad agency announcement.

DARPA is also interested in maximizing the number of non-traditional performers for more innovative concepts, agency officials said. The proposal process is open to small businesses, academic and research institutions, and first-time government contractors. There are also no restrictions on the citizenship or nationality of proposer’s day attendees, DARPA officials said.

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