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DARPA Eyes Small Satellite Development

The agency is refocusing its System F6 project to democratize the building process and embrace open standards for integrating components.

The Department of Defense’s research arm is modifying a program to build a wirelessly connected small-satellite network to provide a more scalable set of technologies that can be integrated through open standards.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) said it’s changing the focus of its System F6 program to “emphasize development of an open and ubiquitous space architecture," according to a press statement (PDF).

To facilitate this, DARPA aims to “democratize” the process for building the system and allow an open community of researchers and developers to have more input, it said.

F6 stands for “Future, Fast, Flexible, Fractionated, Free-Flying Spacecraft United by Information Exchange." The system is meant to replace traditional large, monolithic satellites that are costly to build, launch, maintain and update with a group of smaller, wirelessly networked modules that share resources and thus are more cost-effective.

The agency plans to complete the individual technical components of the system separately so “best in class performers may be selected to integrate through a collaborative development of standards and open source software,” DARPA Deputy Director Kaigham Gabriel said, in a press statement.

Going forward, DARPA said the emphasis for the program will be on development of the following: real-time, fault-tolerant resource sharing over wireless cross-links; algorithms for safe and agile multibody cluster flight; persistent broadband communications between low earth orbit (LEO) spacecraft and the ground; and a robust and scalable multi-level information assurance architecture.

DARPA has planned an in-orbit demo of System F6 program for 2014 to prove the feasibility of several of its features, including: shared on-orbit infrastructure, wireless spacecraft component replacement, persistent broadband communications from low earth orbit and a defensive cluster scatter/re-gather capability.

Small satellites seem to be the way forward for agencies developing space technology. NASA also is increasing its focus on small satellites, work that’s mainly coming out of its Ames Research Center, its Chief Technologist Bobby Braun said recently.

Putting a small-satellite into orbit also is the focus of one of the Centennial Challengesthe space agency recently unveiled. Centennial Challenges are awards aimed at discovering innovation in technology areas in which NASA hopes to make dramatic advancements.

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