Orbital Wins DARPA Contract for Spacecraft Clusters

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WASHINGTON — The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) awarded Dulles, Va.-based Orbital Sciences Corp. a $75 million contract to develop the final design for a radically new space architecture in which traditional, large spacecraft are replaced by clusters of wirelessly connected orbiting modules.

Dubbed System F6, short for Future, Fast, Flexible, Fractionated, Free-Flying spacecraft, Orbital’s design was selected among four competing study contracts issued in 2008 and 2009, according to a Dec. 18 company news release. The new contract is valued at $74.6 million over a one-year period.

Gregg Burgess, Orbital’s vice president for national security systems in the company’s Advanced Programs Group, said the new space architecture has the potential to transform space systems in much the same way that the Internet changed many aspects of daily life.

“System F6 is not just an incremental improvement in technology, but rather a fundamental transformation of the entire space community,” Burgess stated in the news release. “Fractionated and networked architectures could be the answer to recurring problems that debilitate the space sector, including significant cost increases, late deliveries, launch mishaps and on-orbit failures.”

Burgess said each of the System F6 modules is designed to work with the others in a cluster to perform tasks once reserved for large, traditional spacecraft while providing the same overall mission capability.

“By allowing the various functions of a spacecraft to be developed and launched separately, this type of ‘fractionated’ system provides benefits such as reduced overall risk, budgetary and planning flexibility, faster initial deployment, and ultimately greater survivability, including selective replacement of damaged or obsolete elements of a complex spacecraft,” the news release states.

Under the terms of the contract, Orbital will be responsible for detailed design and ground testing of the new technologies, architectures and programmatic concepts, including wireless data communications, cluster flight operations, distributed spacecraft computing systems, rapidly relocatable ground systems, and value-centric design methodologies. A flight demonstration is planned for 2013. Partners include Armonk, N.Y.-based IBM and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.