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DARPA Funds Development on Modular Satellite Network

Soulskill posted more than 6 years ago | from the we-need-more-of-a-challenge-when-shooting-them-down dept.

The Military 51

coondoggie points out a Networkworld story about plans for modular satellite technology which is intended to replace modern, "monolithic" devices. The project hopes to solve issues of scalability and reliability by separating the typical satellite systems and allowing the different modules to change function when necessary. Quoting: "According to DARPA such a virtual satellite effectively constitutes a "bus in the sky" - wherein customers need only provide and deploy a payload module suited to their immediate mission need, with the supporting features supplied by a global network of infrastructure modules already resident on-orbit and at critical ground locations. In addition, there can be sharing of resources between various "spacecraft" that are within sufficient range for communication. DARPA said ... within the F6 network all subsystems and payloads can be treated like a uniquely addressable computing peripheral or network device. Such an approach can provide a long sought after "plug-n-play" capability, according to the agency."

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The F6 network, huh... (2, Funny) (1195047) | more than 6 years ago | (#22597762)

Personally, I prefer the F5 network. It really runs well.

Re:The F6 network, huh... (1)

jd (1658) | more than 6 years ago | (#22598082)

F1 networks go round in circles at 240 mph.

Re:The F6 network, huh... (1)

BigBlueOx (1201587) | more than 6 years ago | (#22599554)

Personally, I run all my sats on the F8 net so I can run them in safe mode

Re:The F6 network, huh... (1)

greyhueofdoubt (1159527) | more than 6 years ago | (#22599938)

I always thought that the F5 network was refreshing.


Finally... (1)

DigitalisAkujin (846133) | more than 6 years ago | (#22597792)

We can finally apply the lessons of an assembly line to satellites! It only took 50 years...

Eeek! (1, Funny)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#22597794)

Buzzword overload! I must do a "system reset."

Re:Eeek! (1)

The Evil Couch (621105) | more than 6 years ago | (#22598400)

Surely you mean "power cycle".

Modular hacking (3, Interesting)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#22597798)

One advantage of the system the way it is now, is that every system is unique. Why is that an advantage? Because to hack into one satellite, you have to study that particular satellite in great detail, and there may not be a security flaw that will allow access.

However, create a modular system, and suddenly any satellite using a compomised module can be hacked. Oh, and did we mention that the Government will be providing the modules? Hellooooo... Clipper Chip, anyone?

Sounds like it has been done before. (2, Interesting)

stretch0611 (603238) | more than 6 years ago | (#22597806)

It looks to me like it is a internet in space.

Re:Sounds like it has been done before. (1, Funny)

ByteSlicer (735276) | more than 6 years ago | (#22597900)

Yes, and we'll name it SkyNet...

Re:Sounds like it has been done before. (1)

Nullav (1053766) | more than 6 years ago | (#22598288)

Oh, god! Two [] of them? We're going to be up to our necks in robots in no time!

Re:Sounds like it has been done before. (1)

cloakable (885764) | more than 6 years ago | (#22600192)

Perhaps they'll fight each other!

Re:Sounds like it has been done before. (1)

Instine (963303) | more than 6 years ago | (#22598054)

Exactly my thoughts. I keep hoping that one day I'll awake to "DARPA funds advanced algorithmic conflic resolution research" or "New DARPA challenge is to probe causes of aggression towards the US"....

We have more way to watch and destroy each other than we can ever possibly use effectively (more than once).

What will MPAA say? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#22602848)


there can be sharing of resources between various "spacecraft" that are within sufficient range for communication.
I wonder when MPAA will start suing the people behind this network for (making possible) copyright infringements.
Maybe this is the final answer to the pirates' quest for a file distribution system that isn't covered by any country's laws? Is space a part of America?
I can see the headlines now: "Satellite cyber pirates force MPAA to take down satellite system - American military provides know-how in bringing the satellites down"

better analogy (2, Insightful)

ILuvRamen (1026668) | more than 6 years ago | (#22597810)

A bus in the sky? Seriously. Okay everyone erase that from your memory and pretend it said IBM Bladecenter in the sky. That would be way more accurate. If you take the bus analogy any further, you'd be paying to install really nice rims and a new motor and a sweet subwoofer and stereo system in a bus and then you're just an idiot and quite possibly a redneck if you do that.
Btw I have a slightly different opinion. Satellites suck. Well at least data ones do. Weather and imagining and all that makes sense. The lag time is awful, the bandwidth is expensive and narrow, and Anderson Cooper keeps talking over the Iraqi reporters because of the delay and we just can't have that. What we need is to lay down 100x the amount of fiber under the oceans and between countries so we can cut out the satellites. Other than that, hey send a mini shuttle up there to dock onto it and install a national weather serive, Sirius, and GPS module at once when the companies rent it. That's not a bad idea. Next is rental space billboards!

Re:better analogy (2, Funny)

i_liek_turtles (1110703) | more than 6 years ago | (#22597838)

A bus in the sky?
It's just a really big car.

Re:better analogy (1)

Clay Pigeon -TPF-VS- (624050) | more than 6 years ago | (#22597976)

If you measure it according to the official units for extra-terrestial objects, it is the size of two volkwagon beetles.

Re:better analogy (1)

The Redster! (874352) | more than 6 years ago | (#22605218)

Imagine two Beetles in the sky... you could play Punch Buggy anywhere!

Re:better analogy (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#22598186)

Bus (Computing) []

Re:better analogy (1)

ThreeGigs (239452) | more than 6 years ago | (#22600168)

I don't think they're using that word the way you think they're using that word. I believe they mean *data* bus, as in PCI. You get the satellite up there, and 'plug in' to the communications network which would provide orbit to ground communications, additional processing power or data storage.

Re:better analogy (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#22601196)

Mostly correct. The term bus as applied to a spacecraft generally refers to the core components of the system including the structure, attitude determination and control, power systems, thermal management, and the data bus.

Re:better analogy (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#22603524)

Didn't they just shoot down a satellite the size of a bus?

Bad idea jeans (4, Informative)

Protonk (599901) | more than 6 years ago | (#22597828)

there is no good reason for this to be a huge research priority (although arguably, it isn't huge). When I first read the summary, I thought that DARPA was funding a next generation version of Hughes Aerospace's 'modular' satellites system, where Hughes builds 1 bus and offer 1 of three payload configurations to customers.

But I'm more confused as to the goals of this project. I read a few of the linked pdf's and true to form, the government request for grant applications were not enlightening. The best I can hash of it seems like this:

DARPA wants to build and test satellites that are placed into orbit in a micro-constellation of sorts, communicating between various parts via wireless signals. Let's leave aside security and interference concerns, because they are--frankly--minor. My primary concerns would be duplication of elements. Assuming that they still have traditional roles for satellites, such as remote imaging and relay, payloads still need to be handled nicely. The camera for the remote sensing system needs to:

1. Know where it is.
2. Know where it is pointing.
3. Point there without too much wobble.

The first 2 can still be done with a distributed satellite--you just put the start tracker and the computational hardware on another cluster. The second requires that you keep the stabilizing hardware on the same bus as the payload. Beyond that, how will they manage stationkeeping? Each microsat would have to be fitted with jets or be replaced in a few years time.

Can anyone fill me in on what I am missing here?

Robustness (2, Interesting)

renoX (11677) | more than 6 years ago | (#22598072)

Have you really read the artiche/paper?

There is a *really good reason* which is given in the article: defence against anti-satellite weapons.

Much like 'Internet': a decentralised system is much more robust than a centralised one..

Re:Robustness (3, Insightful)

Protonk (599901) | more than 6 years ago | (#22598134)

That strikes me as BS. DARPA has been working on ASAT and defenses against ASAT since before it was DARPA. We had to rename all of the ASAt vehicles when Clinton came to office so they didn't sound like purely cold war projects. To think that we have only now come up with this "big sky" approach to defending against ASAT is silly. ASAT is a fact of life when dealing with modern enemies. Hell, we used to worry about russians detonating nuclear weapons in their own satellites just to take ours down. How is a microconstellation going to fix that?

and BTW, I read the article, I just don't feel the need to repeat their stated claim when arguing the negatives, thanks.

Here's my point. In order to hold stationkeeping--in other words, if you give a shit about where your orbit is and how long you can maintain it, each piece of that micro-constellation needs fuel and thrusters. The biggest pieces are still going to be:

solar Panels

Each component is going to need to replicate those, introducing new chances for failure. On top of that, components and satellites are intricately power and heat balanced. Heat dissipation is very tighly controlled and often certain components are paired well with others in order to radiate heat away at a given rate so that the craft doesn't cook itself and that cyclic stresses don't become a problem for long serving craft. This means that each of those components needs to be engineered specifically where only one did before on top of duplicating hardware.

Also, there are still critical components. There will only be one tranceiver (large). That's a critical component. There will be only one payload microsat. There will be (assuming wireless power transmission) only one power generating microsat. All of those are critical to operation. It isn't more secure and robust just because they say it is. Sheesh.

Now instead of one computer to check for bugs and secure against radiation we need 8-10. instead of engineering one satellite we engineer 8-10. If the government wants to spend more money, then be my guest, because that's what this will do.

Re:Robustness (1)

discontinuity (792010) | more than 6 years ago | (#22598372)

They're trading cost for risk. It's pretty much a law of the universe that you have to pay in order to reduce your risk (if you're not gaining something else by increasing risk, then you're a moron plain and simple). Although the extra engineering and replicated functionality are added costs, there clearly is someone at DARPA who believes the added costs are likely to be offset by corresponding reductions in risk. Of course, they're not 100% sure of this themselves, which is why part of the work is a study the risk-adjusted economics of the approach.

Along the risk-mitigation line, one of the benefits of a micro-sat cluster would be that you could upgrade its capabilities easier or repair it by replacing failed units. It's easier to add a new sat to the cluster (and deorbit any antiquated/damaged ones) than to physically link up with a sat in orbit in order to effect repairs (that requires people, space walks, etc.). I would guess that's what they mean by "diversification of launch and orbit failure risk." Obviously you're screwed if your entire constellation gets wiped out, but you are better off if it's only one that bites the dust.

Re:Robustness (2, Informative)

twiddlingbits (707452) | more than 6 years ago | (#22600078)

As someone who worked on several satellites I can attest you are dead on in your analysis. Fuel, Solar Panels and Payload (Transmitters, CPUS, etc) are going to be important. The more capability the satellites need the more power they need and the bigger the panels and fuel tanks and thus the overall size and weight go up and with that the costs.

The orbit is also key, you want them in a low orbit with the right inclination but not so low that atmospheric drag is significant. They also have to be line of sight to their n neighbors to communicate. So until the full netwotk is up you are going to have gaps. Also, when new technologies emerge how to you upgrade? Do you cripple the new birds to have a compatiability mode with the old ones in terms of data rate and communication bands?

The bus concept has been around 10-12 yrs from Hughes, the "network of satellites" has been around longer, think GPS and Iridium. Also the NASA TDRS system falls into this concept too.

All and ASAT has to do is take out two satellites such that there is a gap in the network that can't be bridged and the concept degrades to darn near useless. You also have to build Ground Stations to communicate and to manage the network. Take out the satellite that a critical ground station uses as an uplink and you've forced then to ship the data to another uplink point via terristrial means which negates the whole reason for the satellite network.

All things considered, this is a stupid R&D project. Seems somoene at DARPA read a re-hased proposal from the 1980's and decided it was something cool to throw money at.

Fault or attack tolerence? (2, Interesting)

Bearhouse (1034238) | more than 6 years ago | (#22598318)

Sounds like a knee-jerk reaction to demonstrated Chinese sat destruction capability. Although not stated in the summary as part of the goals, presumably a network of standard, modular and inter-connected sats would not only be cheaper, but also, if properly designed, more fault & attack tolerant. There's much concern in the military about how the armed forces are increasingly reliant on space-based systems, and their vulnerability to disruption / destruction.

To your point, whether or not they'd be more effective / capable is a question that maybe somebody here could answer? Could the same priciple apply as is used by astronomers, for both optical and radio telecopes, whereby multiple small detectors substitute for one big one? (See [] ). Would also reduce the risk of losing one big spy sat at launch, as recently happened. (But presumably it was big because it needed to be?)

Finally, more satellites could perhaps be useful for tactical operations, since there'd be less time to wait for the next pass before getting a view of the area of interest. Harder for bad people, (and good), to avoid too - the times of passing sats are widely documented on the 'net, and Govs and others are known to time their sensitive activties to avoid being caught.

Re:Fault or attack tolerence? (1)

brennz (715237) | more than 6 years ago | (#22603638)

This far predates Chinese Satellite destruction capability.

FYI (4, Informative)

djupedal (584558) | more than 6 years ago | (#22597836)

Link to the original 7.2007 funding announcement WORD doc directly from DARPA... []

Gotta' get going on that marine turtle study grant before they give that one away to someone looking to make soup...darn!

Cluster networking (3, Funny)

n3tcat (664243) | more than 6 years ago | (#22597882)

So after reading this, I had the random thought of cluster networking and whatnot, and it made me wonder if the satellites would ever have any spare CPU cycles. If so, I wonder if they handle helping some of the @home projects (folding, seti, etc).

Re:Cluster networking (1)

TwilightSentry (956837) | more than 6 years ago | (#22598040)

Most of the code on a sattelite has gone though extensive auditing and testing; even if a sattelite had the cycles to spare, its owners would probably rather buy a PS3 and run f@h on it than run even a remote risk of incurring problems on the sattelite.

Re:Cluster networking (1)

Psychotria (953670) | more than 6 years ago | (#22598078)

Extensive auditing and testing cannot, however, find something that you have not anticipated. Sure, the code may run "as designed" as be free of bugs and mem. leaks, but if something comes up that was not thought of...

Re:Cluster networking (1)

Protonk (599901) | more than 6 years ago | (#22598148)

what the heck is this supposed to mean? I mean...duh. of course testing can't deal with unknown problems. But you hire people to figure that shit out. The aerospace industry is home to some of the most well tested software in the world (and hardware). Well tested and robust enough that failures occur VERY rarely and when they do they are usually pretty well explained. Don't include NASA's record here, but even if you did, extend it back to the start of unmanned spaceflight and you'll see it is pretty good for the design considerations.

But non of this means that your comment makes sense.

Re:Cluster networking (1)

rherbert (565206) | more than 6 years ago | (#22599308)

Your calculator probably could run more cycles than a typical satellite. Radiation hardened equipment is slow.

Re:Cluster networking (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#22600250)

Not calculator slow though. The Atmel AT697 is a 100MHz SPARC V8 that's rad tolerant(and that's real 100 MHz, not some bogus 3GHz that exists, maybe, on the die, somewhere).

Tanenbaum was right! (2, Funny)

Cyberax (705495) | more than 6 years ago | (#22597926)

Linux monolithic kernel is obso....


We don't need no stinkin' modular sats! (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#22597978)

Why do away with space monoliths? 2001 taught us that they're the way to go.

3-in-1 (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#22598036)

I for one welcome our new Skynet Beowulf overlords!

I don't understand... (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#22598050)

why they're using f6. It's dead. f7 and f8 are ok (for now), but f9 is in alpha

plug'n'what....*shudder* (1)

KimmoV (1062430) | more than 6 years ago | (#22598076)

sure...another Plug'n'Pray system....except this time it takes a little more than just 'pop the hood and replace the part' if things go pear-shaped :)

Consider analogy to modular software development (1)

DrHow (892279) | more than 6 years ago | (#22598104)

To solve a given tough computing problem, we have technologies that make it possible to build a complex software system to solve the problem by cobbling together appropriate software modules. A primary advantage of such an approach is that it leads to faster development. However, it rarely leads to an implementation that is efficient in terms of either size or performance. A system designed specifically to solve only the given problem and built carefully from the ground up can normally work much more efficiently using less resources. I would expect similar limitations would apply with the modular satellite systems. However, given the enormous costs involved in launching such hardware, inefficiencies of any sort cannot be tolerated easily. I suspect that this program will ultimately fail in its primary objective. However, I expect that there will come out of the effort improvements in the ways that many of the problems in satellite technology are addressed. Such improvements will be imitated in future bottom-up developments.

This is because of the satelliete shootdown (1)

duffbeer703 (177751) | more than 6 years ago | (#22598756)

The Russians still have shortwave communications on their ships, because they have assumed since the 70's that the US will shoot down some or all of their space assets in the event of a war.

The US hasn't done that, and the planned migration to drone attack aircraft is utterly dependent on satellite communication. When the Chinese decide to attack Taiwan or assert claims on the Spratley Islands, the first shot will probably be at US communications.

Hack me network (1)

hhawk (26580) | more than 6 years ago | (#22598822)

It's a great idea, I mean one missle can't shoot it all down...

But even assuming very strong encryption, and some line of sight point to point networking and that it's hard to temper with something up that high.. the DOD can't secure the conmputer networks we have NOW.

This is like putting the Crown Jewels in outer space, someone will find a way to get them...

Transformer satelittes? (1)

LoaTao (826152) | more than 6 years ago | (#22599184)

Cool! I want mine to change into Frenzy!

As a pacifist (2, Funny)

edittard (805475) | more than 6 years ago | (#22599226)

As a pacifist I object to using military technology (defence? hah!), as it glorifies the purveyors of death and violence and gives a veneer of respectabilty to the military industrial complex.

So I'll just stick with the plain old internet, thanks.

Re:As a pacifist (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#22599700)

You mean the internet developed by ARPA/DARPA? Fail.

Sounds like a good idea (1)

hansoloaf (668609) | more than 6 years ago | (#22599512)

coupled with the recent success of a satellite refueling [] another satellite in space.
Can see a satellite change its capability in space from one job function to another and get a boost in fuel to stay up there long term.

10yrs too late (1)

recharged95 (782975) | more than 6 years ago | (#22603406)

It's already done and it's called Hughes Spaceway [] .

What ever happened to NASA and DARPA building the virtual ground station (i.e. getting rid of ground stations)?

Side project (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#22605716)

This is just a side project for DARPA. I hear they have a joint project with defense contractor ArmsTech in the works that will revolutionize nuclear defense! Something about an "alloy cog" or some such code name nonsense.
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