SAN FRANCISCO — When the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency revealed plans in 2011 for the Phoenix program, an effort to send robots into geosynchronous orbit to collect valuable parts from defunct spacecraft, Talbot Jaeger realized the multipurpose spacecraft modules he already was designing could be used to reuse the scavenged parts.

“Space is a junkyard full of items that people spent billions of dollars building and launching,” said Jaeger, NovaWurks founder and chief technologist. “We could use cellular architecture technology to put those valuable parts back into service for a fraction of that.”

Jaeger, who has degrees in biological sciences and electrical engineering, drew much of his inspiration from natural systems for NovaWurks’ small, modular spacecraft, known as Hyper-Integrated Satlets. Each box-shaped satlet, which measures 20 centimeters by 20 centimeters by 10 centimeters and weighs approximately 6 kilograms, will provide all components of a spacecraft bus, including propulsion, power, communications, metrology, pointing, information processing and data storage, Jaeger said.

NovaWurks’ satlets are designed to function like embryonic stem cells with hardware and software linked so closely they act like a single biological system. The satlets also are designed to adapt to their environment.

NovaWurks Inc. at a Glance

Established: January 2012

Location: Los Alamitos, California

Top Official: Talbot Jaeger, Founder and Chief Technologist

Employees: 27 full time

Mission: To provide access to the exploration of space for everyone

“As soon as you put satlets in the configuration, they become the motors, the power supply, the propulsion systems and the communications,” Jaeger said. “They grow into what they need to be. So it’s a very simple process to assemble a spacecraft.”

DARPA awarded NovaWurks a $2.9 million Phoenix contract in 2012 to prove the feasibility of its Hyper-Integrated Satlets. In October 2013, the agency awarded NovaWurks a $30.8 million contract, which includes options worth an additional $11.8 million, for the development, delivery and operation of satlets in an initial on-orbit demonstration. 

Even as DARPA and U.S. military officials contemplate the future direction of the Phoenix program, DARPA officials see a role for satlets.

“As part of the risk reduction activities going forward for the Phoenix project through 2015, DARPA is planning on a flight experiment to validate the satlet concept in low Earth orbit,” said David Barnhart, DARPA’s Phoenix program manager. “This experiment would allow the concept of cellularized, pre-aggregated satlets to go through a series of tests to validate attitude control, power control, processing system and telemetry system handoff and thermal management on orbit.” 

NovaWurks also worked with DARPA on Space Enabled Effects for Military Engagements (SeeMe), a project designed to use a constellation of approximately two dozen small satellites in very low Earth orbit to provide U.S. military forces with speedy access to mission planning imagery. In 2013, DARPA awarded NovaWurks slightly more than $2 million to begin designing small, low-cost satellites that could be launched from aircraft and, once in orbit, deliver space-based imagery directly to soldiers’ handheld devices.

Although DARPA did not continue SeeMe as a standalone program, some of the technology and small-satellite capabilities studied “have been transitioned to various elements within the U.S. military for further investment and validation,” Barnhart said by email. In addition, some technical elements of SeeMe have been folded into the Phoenix low Earth orbit satlet experiment as sample payloads, he said.

NovaWurks’ satlets are far different from the spacecraft Jaeger helped develop during a 30-year career in the aerospace industry with TRW Inc. and Northrop Grumman Corp., including: U.S. Air Force Defense Support Program reconnaissance satellites; Spacelab, NASA’s reusable space shuttle laboratory; and Mayflower, a commercial cubesat technology demonstration launched in 2010. After observing the way NASA, commercial and military space programs were conducted, Jaeger established NovaWurks in January 2012 to test his ideas for reducing the cost, complexity and time needed to send payloads into orbit.

NovaWurks is eager to build satlets for diverse application. In the past, if someone wanted to launch a 1-meter infrared imager requiring 200 watts of power, the person typically would need to find a company to design and build an appropriate spacecraft, Jaeger said. 

In contrast, NovaWurks would simply assemble a group of satlets. “We would put together the number of boxes that meet their need and get them ready to go,” Jaeger said.

Because its business is based on multiple, common spacecraft modules, NovaWurks hopes to use mass production to reduce the cost of building each one. Another cost-saving approach is the firm’s use of backup modules capable of taking over the tasks of any module that fails to function properly. 

“It’s very reliable, very redundant and it allows us to gain back the flexibility and survivability the industry has lost over the years,” Jaeger said. “My assumption is that multiple units offer a better path to reliability than going for 100 percent success for every system, because 100 percent success requires so much redundancy and testing to make it work perfectly.”

Jaeger compares the invention of satlets and their intended impact on space-based systems to the computer revolution propelled by the invention of transistors. Like transistors, satlet designs are easily replicated. Still, the widespread use of computer technology required innovations in manufacturing. 

For satlet use to become widespread, space access needs to become more affordable. 

“I think we have the transistor for space, but launch costs have to come down,” Jaeger said. “That’s another piece of the puzzle.”