Pentagon’s Plug-and-Play Satellite Standards Gaining Traction

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COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — The Pentagon is making progress on defining standard interfaces that will allow satellites to be built more quickly and cheaply.

The U.S. Defense Department’s Operationally Responsive Space (ORS) office’s Modular Space Vehicle (MSV) and the U.S. Air Force’s Standard Interface Vehicle (SIV) programs are leading the way.

Currently, satellites are produced as boutique items.

“Every single one is hand-built, there is no commonality, and in fact, oftentimes, there is no commonality even between spacecraft types,” ORS Director Peter Wegner said.

Wegner’s goal is to allow satellites to be manufactured like Dell computers: built to order from a standard menu of options.

The idea is to take an order from an operational commander, assemble various components onto a modular satellite bus, and deliver a spacecraft tailored to the need within weeks or possibly days.

Several industry executives here praised the move.

“I think standardized interfaces are an appropriate goal,” said Craig Cooning, Boeing’s satellite business chief.

But Cooning added that such interfaces should be standardized across particular class and mission areas, rather than a one-size-fits-all approach.

Wegner said that creating standardized interfaces means the space industry must emulate the computer industry. Satellite components need to be built more like a USB-enabled computer device, in which there is a seamless machine-to-machine connection, he said.

“So the idea is: Can you take that same idea and now overlay it onto space systems, so that you cut down the cost and time associated with building a satellite,” Wegner said.

He said only about one-third of the price of a satellite comes from buying the necessary components; the rest comes from such factors as labor, programming and systems engineering, ORS chief engineer Thomas Adang said.

“Just like taking your car to the mechanic, you pay a third or less for parts; everything else is labor,” Adang said. “The promise of developing standard architecture is that you reduce the human capital that is required.” That architecture is called ISET, for Integrated Systems Engineering Team, a government-industry group that issued a first take on interface standards in 2007.

One ORS satellite, TacSat-4, has been built to the initial ISET standards, and awaits launch, Wegner said.

But the standards are being refined and extended by Northrop Grumman and Sierra Nevada of Sparks, Nev., under contracts awarded by the MSV program.

Program leader Lt. Col. Bryce Morgan’s goal is to take a set of plug-and-play components and assemble a satellite in a week.

A further goal, Adang said, is creating a process that would allow several satellites of different types to be built within a week. Training people is a large part of that effort, Wegner said.

The program will wrap up by publishing the standards through the American Institute for Aeronautics and Astronautics, Adang said.

Wegner said he hoped the standards would be adopted throughout the industry.

A similar vision is shared by the U.S. Air Force’s Standard Interface Vehicle, which last November launched an experimental satellite designed around a standardized space vehicle and equipped with standard interfaces for its payloads.

“We wanted to build a bus where we could have standard interfaces and basically get into a production line mentality, rather than building a new bus every time we built a new spacecraft,” said Col. Carol Welsch, commander of the Space Development Group.

Built by Ball Aerospace & Technologies, Boulder, Colo., the craft is designed to be launched from a variety of rockets and to be stored for extended periods if need be.

“I believe that this could very well serve as a model for future acquisitions. We have learned quite a bit about the value of the production line approach,” Welsch told reporters at the National Space Symposium here April 12.

The standard interfaces on the experimental SIV satellite are not perfect for any one application, but offer an “adequate” level of performance, she said.