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Satellite R&D Landscape Rich with Promise NASA Space Technology Focus, Military Requirements Driving Future Innovations

By | March 1, 2011

      Read an exclusive, extended version of this feature here.

      The satellite sector is poised to see a period of rapid innovation and growth, spurred by the new U.S. National Space Policy, a broadband-hungry military and planned launches of more powerful and nimble satellites in the coming decade.

      Ever-smaller satellites, software-defined radios, next-generation electronics and higher performing propulsion systems underscore a few of the new space capabilities that are attracting R&D investment


      NASA Embraces Risk Taking, Competitive Model

      The fertile environment for research and development is most apparent at NASA, where more than 70 percent of the agency’s new space technology budget will be awarded competitively. In fact, the program follows a DARPA model — operating in a very, open, competitive manner, says Bobby Braun, NASA’s new chief technologist. “We’re incentivizing people to think more about risk. In the past, NASA has been about beating out all the risk in every activity we do. Well, in technology development you have to take some risk. We have to incentivize people to reach a little farther out and have a little grander vision.”

      NASA recently released 14 space technology roadmaps for public comment covering critical areas such as in-space propulsion, shielding and nanotechnology. These future technology investments will enable NASA to meet its strategic plan in the next two decades for science and discovery and are pivotal to the agency’s plans to embark on deep space exploration missions to Mars and beyond. According to Braun, the agency’s biggest challenge is not budgetary but cultural. Braun worked at NASA as an aerospace systems engineer from 1987 to 2003 and recently returned to lead NASA’s technology office after working in academia. He says that NASA over the past decade was focused on near-term missions and not on future investments. “We are to a large extent living off the technology investments made in the 70s and even the 80s,” he says. Braun hopes to change that by getting NASA directorates to think more long-term and take more calculated risks. “Changing these mindsets is difficult. It takes senior agency leadership and it takes engineers and scientists all through NASA and throughout the country to think a little bit differently.“ Braun says that means not always choosing the lowest-risk, proven technology for a given mission but instead weighing the long-term benefits of trying a new technology that offers a performance benefit and the integrated risk across NASA’s future mission portfolio. A key innovation driver in NASA remains small business, which work with the agency through the Small Business Innovation Research and Small Business Technology Transfer programs. NASA in December announced $50 million in phase one awards that will help NASA develop new capabilities and fill technology gaps in its current mission work. The programs previously operated independently and now are under the office of the chief technologist.


      Big Plans for ISS as Orbiting Lab

      A number of NASA awards will focus on more efficient test equipment that could fly on the International Space Station (ISS). “The administration and NASA are very serious about full utilization of the ISS as a national laboratory,” Braun says. “We want to use it for understanding how humans adapt to the long-term microgravity environment. We want to use it for materials research, potentially for biomedical applications. There are a number of techniques and test procedures being developed in small business today for use on the station that could enable us to use that unique environment in ways that deliver interesting products for the biomedical and other industries.”

      In terms of ISS usage, “we’re looking at a portfolio of utilization across industry, academic, education and other government agencies to maximize the return on the investment in ISS,” says Jason Crusan, chief technologist for space operations at NASA headquarters in Washington. “We’re in a unique timeframe right now where we are truly opening the doors to ISS for outside utilization by industry, academia and other governmental organizations.” In January, NASA’s Space Communications and Navigation (Scan) program will fly an orbiting laboratory, dubbed Connect (Communication Navigation and Networking Reconfigurable Testbed), on the ISS to perform space communications and navigation R&D in an actual space environment. Connect will have three software defined radios for experimental communications with the Earth. NASA will be able to reprogram these radios in flight — a capability that will be the basis for future communication and navigation systems.

      One planned test will involve Disruption Tolerant Networking (DTN) communications protocols, which are critical to enabling Internet connectivity throughout the solar system on future space exploration missions. “While we can make the terrestrial Internet protocols work in some space configurations, the majority of space missions must deal with long delays, weak signals, sometimes unidirectional links and frequent disruptions in the data path, especially as spacecraft go out of view behind a planet,” says John Rush, director of systems planning in Scan. “The DTN protocols were designed to provide Internet-like user data transfer in a variety of space mission scenarios, some of them involving data relay spacecraft around other bodies in space.”

      NASA’s commitment to full ISS utilization also is reflected in a joint NASA-DARPA solicitation for research proposals to enhance small satellite experiments on the ISS. Many commercial and academic partners do not understand that the ISS is much more than a platform for NASA to do research on; it’s a “national lab asset that anybody can do research on,” says Crusan. As part of the authorization bill, NASA will cover the cost of the up mass that is required. As long as users meet one of the agency’s standard interfaces, the cost of launch and integration is borne by NASA. Crusan encourages firms investing in next-generation technologies to test them first on the ISS. Doing so is cost-effective and reduces risk. “The commercial industry can actually take more risk on the hardware that they fly. They don’t have to worry about 99.99 percent reliability on an object. They can take calculated steps in their technology development and fly more frequently or potentially iterate on their hardware on the space station,” he says.


      DARPA Seeks Cost-Effective Satellites, Launch Vehicles

      DARPA’s investments are aimed at addressing key challenges associated with the skyrocketing costs and complexity of launching large satellites. The research arm also is focused on the challenge of space situational awareness, or tracking objects in space.

      Rethinking satellite size is a big government priority, given that a typical U.S. Department of Defense satellite today takes as long as two decades to launch from the time it’s conceived, says David Neyland, director of DARPA’s Tactical Technology Office. “On top of that, you have got the cost of getting these (satellites) into orbit, which is typically $200 million to $400 million to launch.” That’s the impetus behind DARPA’s System F6 (Future, Fast, Flexible, Fractionated, Free-Flying Spacecraft United by Information Exchange) program, which looks at the feasibility of building fractional spacecraft that focus on a single capability (data processing or storage, communications, imaging). These wirelessly-interconnected, smaller space modules fly in formation and share resources. “They’re all discrete separate satellites communicating across wireless communications and performing a function,” says Neyland. “The advantage of doing fractional spacecraft is they reduce the risk of launch. If one of the elements goes bad, you can replace it without affecting any of the other elements. We think in the long term that’s going to be a very cost-effective approach to tackling the problem of complexity and the cost per launch of these complex satellites.”

      DARPA also is examining ways to lower the cost and risk of launching satellites, especially with the need for more frequent launches. Specifically, DARPA is revisiting horizontal launches, or launching payloads from existing turbojet aircraft from conventional runways. This launch approach, which relies on adding a liquid or solid propellant booster system as a second stage so it can launch the space asset into low-Earth orbit, was employed widely in the early days of manned spaceflight. “We think if we can do that, we open up an opportunity for commercial industry to get into launch operations in a big way because of the low-cost infrastructure. Our desire is for there to be no special infrastructure at all,” he says.

      To address the space object tracking challenge, DARPA is testing its new Space Surveillance Telescope before handing it off as an operational system to the U.S. Air Force in 2012. The telescope will increase dramatically the amount of objects that can be tracked from low-Earth orbit to geosynchronous orbit, which DARPA estimates at about a million objects ranging in size from a BB to rocket bodies. Today, only about 20,000 objects are tracked by U.S. and worldwide telescopes. “Our space surveillance telescope will be able to detect objects all the way out to geosynchronous orbit that we couldn’t see before,” says Neyland, who hopes the technology will reduce the likelihood of incidents such as the Iridium-Cosmos collision that occurred over Siberia in February 2009. Neyland notes that the new tracking capability creates a data management challenge, since operators of the telescope now will have 50 times the data they had before. DARPA also is starting a follow-on program this year called Space Domain Awareness-Data Fusion, where it will take the data coming out of the telescope and “marry it with sensor data from other Air Force and civilian sensors, fusing them together to provide a comprehensive picture of what we can detect, see and track in orbit,” he says.


      Micro Gyros to Ease GPS Issues

      Northrop Grumman is tackling another R&D challenge — low-power precision navigation in GPS-denied or GPS-challenged locations. The prime contractor is in phase four of a four-phase project for DARPA to further enhance the performance of a demonstration miniature navigation-grade gyro unit for DARPA. Once fully tested and fielded, it would give ground troops, vehicles and aircraft the ability to maintain precision navigation in urban or indoor environments. “Navigating very accurately and knowing your precise location is very important as we progress into the future. That’s not only true for satellite applications but also for soldier-borne applications,” says Doug Meyer, director, advanced sensor development, at Northrop Grumman’s Navigation Systems Division. Since October 2005, Northrop Grumman has been working on the DARPA NGIMG (Navigation Integrated Microgyro) program. The technology, which is based on atom physics, has been around since the late 1960s when first pioneered by scientists at Litton Industries (now part of Northrop Grumman). The breakthrough today is containing the atoms in a “very small gas cell” and using lasers to shrink the electronics dramatically, says Meyer. “It’s enabled us to take something that was for a single-gyro axis the size of two Coca-Cola cans stacked on top of one another to roughly the size of two sugar cubes stacked on top of one another.” Meyer estimates that it will be 2015 to 2016 before the gyro is in the hands of soldiers, and he also sees application for the technology with first responders such as firefighters who would be able to navigate in a GPS-denied environment such as a burning building.


      Electronics on a Nanoscale

      At the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, John Cressler envisions NASA’s future space missions using next-generation electronics that can operate in the cold expanse of space without the need to be heated or shielded from radiation. Cressler, a Ken Byers Professor in Georgia Tech’s School of Electrical and Computing Engineering, led a five-year, $12 million NASA project focused on integrating two semiconductor materials, silicon and germanium, to design and test next-generation electronics that would be highly immune to the cold temperatures and radiation of space. “The low-temperature and radiation capability (of this new silicon-germanium (SiGe) technology) suggested to us a solution to a major bottleneck at NASA, namely, being able to launch missions with electronics where mission designers did not need to worry about providing shielding or heating. This would provide enormous advantages in launch size and weight and can change the way missions are presently architected.”

      The project’s multi-disciplinary team included academic researchers from six universities as well as researchers at JPL, BAE Systems, Boeing, IBM and Lynguent. Cressler says about 75 graduate students also worked on the project over the last five years. The funded project ended in August, with delivery to NASA of modeling tools, circuit designs, packaging technologies and system/subsystem designs as well as guidelines for qualifying those parts for use in space. And even though the scope of work didn’t include any flight testing, one of the project’s sensor interfaces recently was embedded in an experiment currently flying on the International Space Station. “This is something that could change the way NASA views exploration missions. Our challenge to NASA is, ‘If I have technology that could operate anywhere without shielding, without heating or cooling, how would you build that mission vehicle differently?’”

      Andrew Keys, center chief technologist at Marshall Space Flight Center, says NASA researchers are exploring ways to move SiGe technology to the point where it can be used on actual vehicle designs. “SiGe technology is a crucial step in developing a new paradigm leading to lighter weight and more capable space vehicle designs,” he says.

      Anne Wainscott-Sargent is a communications consultant and writer who brings nearly two decades of writing communications experience in the aerospace, satellite, telecommunications, defense, and government health sectors.

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