Swarms of small satellites could provide the edge

If the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency has anything to do with it, the U.S. military’s space future will be built around small, fast and agile satellite systems rather than the big, slow and ponderous systems it now relies on.

DARPA is looking for industry ideas for its Tiny, Independent, Coordinating Spacecraft (TICS) initiative, which envisions swarms of small, 1- to 4-kilogram satellites that could combine in space into larger systems to perform various sensing and servicing missions, and be launched from regular aircraft.

These minimal mass satellites would, as an aggregate, be able to mimic the capabilities of current, much larger satellites through communications links and other shared resources and would be reconfigurable to perform new missions as the need arises.

All of this would also, DARPA said in a recent notice, remove most of the integration and test activities that now have to be carried out and that make designing and launching satellites such a drawn-out affair. Each of the TICS “would be lofted into orbit via advanced boosters which will look a lot less like conventional rockets and a lot more like tactical munitions,” such as AIM-7s or HARMs, said Lt. Col. Fred Kennedy, a program manager at DARPA’s Virtual Space Office.

“They’d be fired off the rails of stock fighter aircraft, much like their conventional cousins.”

TICS could be launched in any direction, without relying on expensive ranges, and whenever the need arises, in hours rather than months or years, he told a DARPATech conference earlier this year.

Although TICS has been in development for several years, the successful destruction in January 2007 by China of one of its own low- Earth-orbit satellites “was a wake-up call,” Kennedy said.

There are other, similar programs under way at DARPA, such as the System F6 initiative that seeks to develop virtual satellites from free-flying spacecraft that would act as the components of a satellite and link with one another wirelessly.

The TICS program differs from this because F6 seeks to “fractionate spacecraft by function, while TICS would be all the same,” Kennedy said. “Think of TICS as an army, launched individually and then quickly closing ranks to protect our assets.”

About the Author

Brian Robinson is a special contributor to Defense Systems.

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