DARPA Pushes the Boundaries of Space Technology

GEOINT capabilities to benefit from activities in launch, robotics


In keeping with its founding mandate, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is aggressively pursuing space-related projects in areas that reflect the increasingly important role satellites play in national security.

Speaking Sunday at GEOINT Foreword, Bradford Tousley, director of DARPA’s Tactical Technology Office, provided updates on the agency’s latest efforts to advance the state of the art for space launch, on-orbit satellite servicing, and space domain awareness.

Tousley reminded the audience that while DARPA, which invests in high-risk, high-payoff technologies for national security, is best known for pioneering the internet, the agency was created in 1958 to pursue space capabilities. Space remains an important part of DARPA’s wide-ranging technology portfolio.

In space launch, DARPA is focusing on the Experimental Spaceplane, or XS-1 program, an effort to field a small satellite launcher that operates more like an aircraft—XS-1 will take off and land from a runway—rather than a traditional rocket. The XS-1 is expected to be able to launch 10 times in as many days at a cost of $5 million per mission. DARPA recently completed the initial study phase of the program and is readying for a second phase that will culminate in a flight demonstration, Tousley said.

While mindful of recently unsuccessful DARPA efforts to field flexible, low-cost launchers, Tousley remains confident about XS-1, in part because it relies on relatively mature propulsion technology and leverages substantial commercial investments in rockets. The company selected to fly the Phase 2 XS-1 demonstration will have to first prove its engine can be fired on the ground 10 times in 10 days, he added.

DARPA is preparing to release another solicitation for its latest effort in space robotics, the Robotic Servicing of Geosynchronous Satellites (RSGS) program. DARPA has a long history in space robotics, but operating in geosynchronous orbit presents unique challenges resulting from the high altitude and extreme radiation environment.

Like the XS-1 program, RSGS will leverage work being done in the private sector on robotic satellite servicing, where profit-motivated companies are developing capabilities to extend the lives of on-orbit satellites. Tousley said DARPA will pursue the RSGS mission as a public-private partnership, with the private sector partner contributing funding and ultimately operating the resulting capability as a commercial service.

DARPA envisions a similar transition to a commercial service with XS-1, which will be able to launch payloads weighing up to 3,000 pounds.

XS-1 and RSGS both directly support GEOINT missions, Tousley said. The ability to rapidly deploy and reconstitute image-gathering satellites at a relatively low cost could yield new approaches to this all-important national security mission, which traditionally has relied on very large and expensive satellite platforms.

Meanwhile, RSGS, Tousley said, could yield an ability to assemble large structures—such as imaging apertures—in geosynchronous orbit, from which satellites can maintain constant surveillance of a given area.

Space domain awareness is another area in which DARPA is pushing the envelope. The OrbitOutlook program will seek to draw data from nontraditional sources—ranging from private companies to hobbyists with good telescopes—to combine with military data and analysis to provide a more complete picture of the orbital environment, Tousley said.

In another program, dubbed Hallmark, the aim is to enable warfighters to collect and use space situational awareness data in real time, as can be done with air operations today, according to Tousley. DARPA envisions Hallmark to be a 24- to 36-month effort, the results of which will feed into the Pentagon’s new Joint Interagency Combined Space Operations Center, an experimentation and test effort to boost the ability to detect, characterize, and attribute irresponsible or threatening space activity in a timely manner.


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