WASHINGTON — The U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) has for the last four years been developing so-called plug-and-play technology to enable rapid spacecraft development, and it now intends to spend as much as $200 million over the next five years working with industry to put the concept to work on operational space systems.

Plug-and-play technology was conceived out of the military’s desire to have the ability to rapidly develop, build and launch spacecraft to augment or replace existing assets. Modern spacecraft development and integration is a painstaking process because components typically are not designed to recognize and interface with one another without specifically designed software.

“What we’re trying to do in aerospace is approximate the experience you have with your computer,” said Jim Lyke, a technical adviser at the AFRL’s Space Vehicle Directorate. “When you plug a mouse or a keyboard in, you get that automatic recognition. If it were only possible to do that in aerospace, we think life might be better.”

As many as six companies will be awarded six-month contracts worth around $500,000 apiece in May to develop plug- and-play network architectures that will be the basis for the planned TacSat-5 satellite, according to a Jan. 15 broad agency announcement posted on the Federal Business Opportunities Web site. Responses to the solicitation are due March 2.

After the six-month contracts are completed, some of the companies may be chosen to develop spacecraft buses, subsystems and components that use the technology, and these could be incorporated into the TacSat-5 satellite. The overall procurement approach for the program will be different from most, TacSat-5 program manager Neal Peck said in an interview. The development of TacSat-5 is not the ultimate goal; rather, it is just one step toward proving the plug-and-play concept and eventually enabling its use in all kinds of spacecraft, he said.

“We are targeting 2012 for the satellite launch,” Peck said. “At the same time, there is a fair amount of uncertainty as to what the mission, payload and launch vehicle will be. Our focus is on the development of the plug-and-play bus, and we are essentially payload-agnostic. We just hope the payload assigned comes with some level of plug-and- play capability, so the integration of the two would be greatly simplified.”

The Space Vehicles Directorate has already proven plug-and-play technology in the laboratory and on the test range, Lyke said. A satellite called PnPSat-1 was AFRL’s first testbed for the technology, Lyke said. At the heart of that satellite was the Applique Sensor Interface Module, the function of which Lyke described as analogous to the USB chip inside a computer.

PnPSat-1 proved the validity of the concept in a laboratory and at one time was being considered for launch, but development issues have kept it on the ground.

The Space Vehicles Directorate in 2007 demonstrated plug-and-play technology in flight, launching a payload on a sounding rocket from White Sands Missile Range, , that hosted four devices connected to four plug-and-play ports, Lyke said. TacSat- 5 will be the first mission to demonstrate the technology in space.

Commercial interest in the broad agency announcement has already been high, as companies not only want to win this contract but also want to use the technology on their own systems, according to Peck.

“[Satellite manufacturers] want to take plug-and-play technology into their commercial satellite base because they see it as a way for them to streamline their processes and do things much more efficiently and cost-effectively,” Peck said.

The plug-and-play model also fits well with the fast-paced and ever-changing needs of today’s military, as payloads and components could be “hot-swapped” in and out at the last minute before launch, Peck said. While this is unlikely to be demonstrated on TacSat-5, it is a likely goal of future missions. He added that plug-and-play technology could facilitate in-orbit servicing of satellites.