DARPA’s “FedEx to GEO” Vision Takes a Small Step Forward
WASHINGTON — The U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency released specifications Nov. 10 for a standardized spacecraft deployment system it is developing to enable military payloads to hitch rides on commercial communications satellites and hop off in or near geostationary orbit.
DARPA has high hopes for the Payload Orbital Delivery system, or POD, describing it in a press release as a way to “eventually provide ‘FedEx to GEO’ capabilities to make space deliveries to high-altitude orbits much easier and faster.”
DARPA sees publicly releasing the POD interface requirements as a first step toward fostering such a capability;DARPA hopes eventually to follow it with a risk-reduction flight to validate the POD technology. At present, the agency says, no technology exists to enable payloads to separate themselves from commercial satellites bound for geostationary orbit.
Geostationary orbit, located 36,000 kilometers above the equator, is the operating location for most communications satellites. Commercial satellite launches are relatively frequent and inexpensive compared with Defense Department satellite launches. They also often have unused carrying capacity that operators are increasingly looking to monetize by permanently hosting other operators’ payloads on their satellites. DARPA’s POD system has the potential to turn hosted payload opportunities into ride-sharing opportunities.
DARPA did not disclose a timeline for completing the POD system or conducting the risk-reduction flight it says it is currently “pursuing.”
However, DARPA said each POD would measure approximately 0.4 meters by 0.5 meters by 1 meter and could carry payloads weighing between 68 and 100 kilograms. A standardized interface would attach the POD to its host satellite and then release it at the desired orbit.
The POD project is part of DARPA’s Phoenix program, a 4-year-old effort that is branched out from its original focus on satellite salvage and servicing operations. DARPA officials have said that PODs, in addition to providing low-cost transportation to geostationary orbit for all manner of small civil and military payloads, could also be used to transport satlets — small modules the Phoenix program is developing to perform critical satellite functions such as power, pointing and communications for crippled satellites.
DARPA’s POD announcement comes as the Defense Department looks to use hosted payloads to bolster its space-based capabilities. In June, the Air Force awarded contracts to 14 space companies, qualifying them to provide services and hardware in support of hosted payload missions. The awards were part of a new Hosted Payloads Solutions (HOPS) contracting vehicle aimed at standardizing the processes for placing dedicated military capabilities aboard commercial satellites. While NASA already has taken advantage of HOPS to award study contracts for hosting a pollution-monitoring payload on a commercial satellite, the Air Force itself does not expect to make any awards under HOPS for three to five years, a service official told SpaceNews in October.