DARPA Contractor Planning Second Demo Mission for Tiny Satellite Cores

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WASHINGTON — NovaWurks, a space technology startup founded three years ago in a former Northrop Grumman engineer’s garage, is trying to arrange a 2016 orbital demonstration of small-satellite cores, or satlets, it developed for the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Project Agency’s Phoenix program.

If the mission comes together, it will be the second trip to space for the tiny satlets, and the first flight not financed entirely by DARPA, Paul Lithgow, chief of advanced concepts for NovaWurks, wrote in an April 5 statement.

Satlets provide the essential spacecraft functions of power, propulsion, navigation and data processing in a compact package that weighs about six kilograms and measures 20 centimeters long by 20 centimeters wide and 10 centimeters high. Conceptually, one or more satlets can function as the core of any kind of satellite, once integrated with the right sort of instruments.

To that end, NovaWurks is looking for organizations, public or private, that want to integrate their experimental space payloads with satlets. The company wants to integrate optical and radio frequency instruments into a satlet-based spacecraft that, once instrumented, would weigh between 100 kilograms and 150 kilograms and launch to low Earth orbit in fall 2016 aboard a yet-unidentified rocket, Lithgow wrote.

Launch arrangements for the mission, which NovaWurks calls Payload Test Bed Mission-1, are yet to be settled.

Paul Lithgow NovaWurks
Paul Lithgow, chief of advanced concepts for NovaWurks. Credit: NovaWurks

“We’re still fairly early in the process and are primarily considering ride-share or other ‘secondary payload’ options,” Lithgow wrote.

At least 10 NovaWurks’ satlets are expected to make their space debut later this year when they are carried to orbit aboard the inaugural flight of Spaceflight Inc.’s Sherpa free-flying secondary payload dispenser. Spaceflight Inc. President Curt Blake said April 9 that Sherpa is slated to launch toward the end of 2015 aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket.

NovaWurks developed its satlets using about $40 million awarded in 2012 and 2013 DARPA’s Phoenix program, which began as a satellite servicing and salvaging project and has evolved into an on-orbit construction project. DARPA paid to put NovaWurks satlets aboard Sherpa as part of Phoenix, but the Payload Test Bed Mission-1 “is funded by multiple sources, including private NovaWurks funds,” Lithgow said.

Phoenix elements besides NovaWurks satlets include a dispenser pod to carry caches of satlets to orbit and a robotic tender craft to assemble satellites on orbit using satlet cores.