DARPA wants to replace conventional spacecraft with free-floating orbit clusters

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency will host a proposer's day on May 3 to discuss a program to replace conventional monolithic spacecraft structures with free-floating, interconnected modules that interact wirelessly, according to a contracting notice. The project will develop satellites that can be re-configured more easily for changing military needs.

The experiment, if successful, would also help new players avoid building expensive satellite systems from scratch. With "fractionated spacecraft architectures" -- industry jargon for the decomposition of a large satellite into distinct modules that can be assembled to deliver the same capability -- any party can develop components to be integrated in a satellite cluster, according to contract documents. This would lower the barriers to entry into the national security space industry, making the market more competitive. The program, which goes by the moniker System F6, is slated for a six-month demo mission in 2015.

DARPA has previously solicited partners for the development of secure network protocols, and hardware components for System F6, according to procurement documents. The agency is expected to release another request for proposals for technology that allows data transmission and signals to be conducted through a satellite cluster. This will enable components to share computing and data storage resources for sensitive missions.

The spacecraft platform must be able to "perform a defensive cluster scatter and re-gather maneuver to rapidly evade a debris-like threat" as well as "autonomously reconfigure the cluster to retain safety and mission critical functionality in the face of network degradation or component failures," according to a solicitation that has not yet been officially released.

Multiple awards are anticipated, the document reads. The value will depend on the quality of the ideas received and available funding. Research will likely be restricted because of its sensitive and proprietary nature.

"The fractionated architecture may, at first blush, appear overly complex, massive, and expensive," reads a 2006 research paper coauthored by DARPA and defense contractor Booz Allen Hamilton, which supports space agencies. "But, because of its flexibility and robustness, it is responsive. With this flexibility to rapidly adapt to uncertainty comes great value."