5 New Space Programs on DARPA’s Agenda, But Funding Down

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WASHINGTON — The U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency hopes to start as many as five new space development programs next year in areas including space threat awareness and satellite propulsion technology.

The agency’s total budget request for space-related activities is about $126 million for fiscal year 2016. Despite the new starts, that is about $53 million less than the agency received from lawmakers in 2015 and about $43 million less than the agency expected to spend on space programs a year ago.

The decrease reflects the drawdown of two long-running programs, one to develop a low-cost, airborne satellite launching system and another that aims to improve space surveillance, budget documents said.

DARPA’s mission, generally speaking, is to pursue high-risk, high-payoff technology development projects for the Pentagon. These projects are taken on with the understanding that many, if not most, will fail. Defense Department officials often talk about “DARPA-hard” programs to describe their degree of difficulty.

2016 DARPA White House Budget Request
Credit: SpaceNews

DARPA’s budget books break out funding on a program-by-program basis for the upcoming fiscal year only; outyear projections are provided only at the Defense Department level. But of the 10 space-related programs earmarked for funding in 2016, five were mentioned by name in the 2015 budget.

Those programs, which account for $34 million worth of spending in 2016, are:

  • Radarnet, an effort to design a deployable lightweight, low-power and wideband-capable communications antenna for cubesats.
  • Hallmark, which is aimed at increasing awareness of the space threat through a battle management command-and-control capability. This program would eventually be transitioned to the Air Force.
  • Advanced Space Propulsion Technologies, which would explore new propellants, engine designs and technologies that could improve on-orbit propulsion.
  • Optical Aperture Self-assembly in Space, or OASIS, which calls for constructing large optical apertures from smaller, modular components that have self-organized in orbit.
  • Robotic Servicing of Geostationary Satellites, which builds on nearly a decade’s worth of agency work to establish a robotics operation in geosynchronous orbit to perform servicing tasks.

Next year also looks to be pivotal for two of DARPA’s costliest current programs, the Airborne Launch Assist Space Access, or ALASA, and Phoenix, the latter of which is ultimately aimed at servicing satellites already on orbit.

DARPA is seeking $29 million next year for the ALASA program, which is intended to field a system to launch satellites weighing as many as 45 kilograms for $1 million each. Although that request is down from the $60 million sought in 2015, DARPA has scheduled as many as a dozen flights next year of the ALASA system.

That plan, according to budget documents, includes three initial launches of engineering payloads that would test the ALASA telemetry and flight termination systems. DARPA hopes to conduct nine additional missions to demonstrate the advantages of the launch capability, the documents show.

Boeing Defense, Space and Security of St. Louis is the ALASA program’s prime contractor, and DARPA hopes the technology will transition to the Air Force following development.

The agency also hopes for two demonstrations next year of its Phoenix program. The first is the launch of what it calls a satlet to low Earth orbit. DARPA describes satlets as small modules that perform critical satellite functions such as power, pointing and communications for crippled satellites.

The other planned demonstration under the Phoenix program umbrella is what DARPA calls its Payload Orbital Delivery system, or POD, a standardized spacecraft deployment system that would enable military payloads to hitch rides on commercial communication satellites and hop off in or near geostationary orbit. DARPA asked for $19 million for the program, down from $55 million a year ago.