Chip and electronics manufacturers urged to develop a networking device to connect satellites in Darpa's System F6 program.

Elizabeth Montalbano, Contributor

November 16, 2011

2 Min Read

>Slideshow: Next Generation Defense Technologies

>Slideshow: Next Generation Defense Technologies

Slideshow: Next Generation Defense Technologies (click for larger image and for full slideshow)

The Department of Defense is looking for a way to wirelessly connect a cluster of small satellites so they can communicate as one entity with facilities on the ground.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has put out a call to computer chip and electronics manufacturers to develop a networking device to achieve this for its System F6 program. Rather than a one-time, custom system, the agency hopes to reuse the F6 Technology Package for various satellite clusters it aims to launch as part of the program, it said.

Such electronics technology already exists on earth, but there is nothing comparable for space use, according to DARPA.

[ A lot of government activity is taking place in space. Read NASA's Newest Mars Rover Prepares For Close-Up. ]

"Today's space electronics are clunky," said Paul Eremenko, DARPA program manager, in a statement. "They provide limited processing speed and capability, they're bulky and power-hungry, and they are manufactured as bespoke, one-of-a-kind products."

What DARPA is looking for is essentially a network-computing device to physically connect and provide switching and routing functions between the spacecraft bus, wireless inter-satellite transceivers, shared resource payloads such as computing, data storage, and mission payloads such as sensors, the agency said.

As envisioned, F6TP would act as a hardware platform running cluster-networking software, such as the network protocol stack, middleware that allows the satellite cluster to share resources, and flight and mission-specific applications.

The technology also would provide security features such as encryption to protect communications and information being shared across the cluster.

The concept behind DARPA's F6 program is to have a group of small satellites act and function as one larger satellite, according to DARPA. This type of activity requires the sharing of a host of technology--such as communication networks and flight logic--and DARPA is eyeing open-standards-based interfaces to facilitate this unified system.

In fact, one of the three main aspects of F6 aside from F6TP and an in-orbit demonstration scheduled for 2015 is an F6 Developer's Kit (F6DK), a set of open source, freely exportable interface standards, protocols, software and behaviors that will allow anyone interested to develop a clean-sheet module design for a satellite cluster, the agency said.

To send F6 satellites into orbit, DARPA also is working on a new launch capability that is less expensive and more efficient than technology currently used.

The agency's Airborne Launch Assist Space Access (ALASA) program is working on a new design for sending small satellites into space independent of larger satellite payloads, which is how they are launched now.

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