What Happened to the Pentagon’s Formation-Flying Satellite?

<em>Art: DARPA</em>

Art: DARPA

by DAVID AXE

The U.S. military has cancelled a seven-year, $200-million effort to develop a new kind of satellite — one comprising groups of small, formation-flying craft orbiting in tight-knit formations and sharing data wirelessly.

The Future, Fast, Flexible, Fractionated Free-Flying Spacecraft, or F6, was overseen by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA, and featured an unusual program structure that probably contributed to its demise. Offiziere.ch spoke to one space-industry insider with insight into F6’s promise and problems. “It was a good idea to can F6,” the insider says.

F6 was meant to offer an alternative to today’s big, expensive, single-piece satellites, which can tip the scales at 10-tons mass and $1 billion or more in acquisition costs. The F6 concept envisioned several smaller, cheaper, self-contained satellites, each performing a few narrow tasks, orbiting in close formation and communicating with each other via datalink to form a sort of “aggregated” multimission spacecraft. In theory, an aggregated satellite is more resilient that a monolithic one, as it can lose some of its components and still function.

The concept was sound but the program management was not. Instead of paying an aerospace company to integrate the technologies being developed by small firms and university teams, DARPA decided to perform integration on its own — an unusual arrangement in the world of military acquisition.

A first test flight was slated for 2015, but DARPA recently ended the program after a review of programs this year. “It was a reach to use DARPA as the integrator, given the competitiveness of university programs,” the space insider explains.

Partially as a result of the poor management, the software needed to control the aggregated spacecraft advanced more slowly than the hardware components, in the inside adds. “Software groups in aerospace are small and often take longer than the hardware takes to assemble and test. Add to the problem that they are often picked off by the IT industry for twice the money or for a competing program, and that there are no shortcuts for bleeding edge developers of code.”

Bottom line, “the software is always late and full of holes.”

It’s possible DARPA realized early on that its integration effort would not work — and kept F6 going in the hope that some useful technologies would emerge from the program even if the main aggregated spacecraft failed. “They kept the universities busy and hoped for some technology carry-overs, hence the $200-million-plus expenditure.”

The good news is that some components, and even some bits of software, indeed appear likely to survive F6’s cancellation. So the years and hundreds of millions of dollars weren’t a total waste.

This entry was posted in David Axe, English.

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