No swarms in space: DARPA axes $200mn ‘fractionated sat’ project

No swarms in space: DARPA axes $200mn ‘fractionated sat’ project
After spending more than $200 million, the Pentagon’s advanced research branch has decided to scrap one of its key space projects, System F6, which aimed to distribute functions of a big satellite into several small ones orbiting in a tight formation.

The project, fully named Future, Fast, Flexible, Fractionated Free-flying Spacecraft United by Information Exchange, was expected to go to the orbital testing phase in 2015. But this won’t happen, according to Brad Tousley, director of Tactical Technology Office of the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), who spoke this week to space.com.

Tousley cited a number of factors, including the lack of an overall integrator for the experiment, explaining why he decided to scrap System F6 after taking over the office in January and reviewing its project portfolio.

Since its launch in 2006, DARPA invested some $226 million System F6. Last year alone the agency spent $40 million on it, which is roughly a quarter of the agency’s entire space budget.

What the researchers wanted was a system which would allow building several small satellites and would fly in a formation communicating wirelessly and sharing their resources. Such a cluster in theory could do as good a job as a traditional bigger integrated satellite. But they would have better survivability and adaptability as well as cheaper and simpler to produce.

A cluster build with fractionated architecture would have better chances to live over an encounter with space debris (or an enemy attack), DARPA estimated. If one or two satellites in the group were taken out, the remaining would reconfigure and try to compensate for the loss. The testing plan also included a System F6 cluster scattering and re-gathering as part of an evasion maneuver.

Among the final goals DARPA set was to produce an open-source developer’s kit, which would give third parties the tools like communication protocols and behavioral algorithms needed to create similar systems.

The F6 Program (Image from defenseindustrydaily.com)

The now-canceled program had a troubled history. In 2009 awarded Virginia-based Orbital Sciences a $75-million contract to oversee System F6 development, but soon terminated the deal. Instead it hired several smaller companies to distribute the work among them, but didn’t assign the lead integrator role, Tousley said, failing to explain the rationale behind the leaderless management.

DARPA plans to run some parts of the program to its conclusion. Emergent Space Systems of Greenbelt will be completing its job on developing software for System F6 through January 2014, according to the company’s president and founder George Davis.

Tousley pledged to feed technology developed for the project into DARPA’s other space initiatives. One such piece called Airborne Launch Assist Space Access (ALASA) aims at demonstrating a low-cost satellite launcher, while another program called Phoenix seeks to salvage satellite in orbit and use the cannibalized parts in other spacecraft. 

He added the broader concept of disaggregation is currently explored by the US Air Force.