Having been doing a lot on cubesats recently, I was struck by a Space News report that DARPA is funding a $75 million project “to develop the final design for a radically new space architecture in which traditional, large spacecraft are replaced by clusters of wirelessly connected orbiting modules”– i.e., networked cubesats.
Dubbed System F6, short for Future, Fast, Flexible, Fractionated, Free-Flying spacecraft, Orbital’s design was selected among four competing study contracts issued in 2008 and 2009, according to a Dec. 18 company news release. The new contract is valued at $74.6 million over a one-year period.
Gregg Burgess, Orbital’s vice president for national security systems in the company’s Advanced Programs Group, said the new space architecture has the potential to transform space systems in much the same way that the Internet changed many aspects of daily life.
“System F6 is not just an incremental improvement in technology, but rather a fundamental transformation of the entire space community,” Burgess stated in the news release. “Fractionated and networked architectures could be the answer to recurring problems that debilitate the space sector, including significant cost increases, late deliveries, launch mishaps and on-orbit failures.”
Burgess said each of the System F6 modules is designed to work with the others in a cluster to perform tasks once reserved for large, traditional spacecraft while providing the same overall mission capability.
For those who aren’t that familiar with conventional satellites, what makes this idea revolutionary is that normally spacecraft are expensive; take a long time to design, test and launch; and are all-or-nothing propositions– if they crash or fail to deploy properly the costs are catastrophic. Theoretically, you could replace some big satellites with constellations of cubesats, which could be upgraded incrementally, reconfigured for different missions, and would be more robust against accidents or attack. Very different.