NovaWurks Prepares Self Assembling Spacecraft for LEO Demonstration
[Via Satellite 01-27-2016] NovaWurks, a U.S. company that provides high-tech space products and services, is embarking on the demonstration phase of its new modular satellite design set to aid the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s (DARPA) Phoenix program, which aims to scavenge and reuse parts from obsolete spacecraft already in orbit. Talbot Jaeger, founder and chief technologist at NovaWurks, was already in the process of designing and building software for the multi-purpose modular systems before signing on with the DARPA program in 2012 to provide the Geosynchronous (GEO) orbit space robotics systems. NovaWurks technology seeks to enable key on-orbit capabilities, including assembly, repair, asset life extension, refueling and more.
“We were developing the spacecraft for low-computative applications. The operating system was thought to be able to aggregate resources, whether they are terrestrial, airborne, space or under water. The ability to aggregate resources easily has been tried by universities worldwide, but we thought we might have a better idea of how to make it efficient,” Jaeger told Via Satellite.
When DARPA’s Phoenix program arose, Jaeger believed it would be a “natural fit” for the software and a chance to showcase how all the pieces of a spacecraft could come together on orbit.
DARPA’s Phoenix program launched in 2011 to change the current satellite paradigm in which spacecraft must be designed and built to operate without any upgrades or repairs for their entire lifespan. The program looks to enable GEO robotics servicing and asset life extension, while developing new satellite architectures to reduce the cost of space-based systems. Specifically, the program has set out to develop and demonstrate the technologies that make it possible to inspect and robotically service cooperative space systems in GEO and to validate new satellite assembly architectures, according to DARPA’s website.
And NovaWurks is close to demonstrating just that.
NovaWurks’ spacecraft, known as Hyper-Integrated Satlets (HISats), draw on areas of biology and engineering in order to create a new low-cost, modular satellite architecture that can scale almost infinitely. This is just one area of the Phoenix program, which also looks to create and demonstrate the technology surrounding the robot that will perform on-orbit servicing as well as the transportation system to carry a wide variety of separable mass elements to orbit aboard commercial communications satellites.
The HISats are small independent modules that weigh roughly 15 pounds each and incorporate essential satellite functionality, such as power supplies, movement controls and sensors, among others.
“The HISat is a single unit, cellular in nature — like an embryonic human cell — that works to differentiate itself on demand. In this differentiation it can become whatever tool it needs to become in [the on-orbit] junkyard. In this way you can put them into use and then assign each HISat specific tasks or functions once they are in place,” said Jaeger.
The company is using the HISats to demonstrate the ability to rapidly design, build and support payloads of any size and weight.
“If you have an unknown payload that you need to fly, on the ground we can take disparate payloads — or payloads without any need for the non-recurring costs — we can wrap it, conform to it and launch it rapidly,” Jaeger explained. “We can do that because these cells can be attached to rocket launch interfaces and payloads and then, when they are released, can support entire missions because they understand space, how to work together, and how to support payloads at a very low cost and ease of design and capability.”
The company has been working on the HISat concept for about three years, receiving initial funding from the DARPA program in 2012 in the way of $2.8 million. DARPA awarded NovaWurks a follow-on contract for Phases 2 and 3 in January 2014, valued at $30.8 million with options for an additional $11.8 million.
The company is now in Phase 3 of the program and launched an independent demonstration of the HISat systems onboard the International Space Station (ISS) in December. Next, the company is preparing to take the HISats to flight in Low Earth Orbit (LEO) this summer.
“We are scheduled on the DARPA program to be launched in June of this year in order to preform a technology demonstration of the HISats,” Jaeger said, noting that the other two aspects of the Phoenix program are not scheduled for launch on the same mission.
NovaWurks is scheduled to demonstrate the technology in GEO in mid-2017. Jaeger noted that the company plans to demonstrate the technology in all orbits and all regimes, with the aim to prove that the HISat’s capabilities are applicable for a diverse clientele.
“With HISats, national and commercial users can try out new technologies that are of any scale. The scalability of the architecture changes the ecosystem. We don’t just fly small payloads, we can support medium-sized and very large payloads. So, instead of a single-commodity bus, you have a variable commodity bus that can scale to the needs of the users on both the launch side and the payload side. That changes the game. It means you don’t always have to modify something or create it from scratch,” said Jaeger.
The scalability of the HISat design means that when building a satellite, operators no longer have to adapt to the needs of a spacecraft, cutting back on non-recurring aspects of getting payloads on board and making it more cost-effective to launch a satellite, according to Jaeger. Also, he believes the scalability will create a less-expensive process to launch satellites, opening up the satellite industry to lower-cost launches and operations.
“This is going to open the door for people to not only do the missions they are doing today, but also do the missions they couldn’t even conceive of before,” said Jaeger. “We believe a cellular design allows you to be robust, resilient and survive all sorts of unique challenges that are presented to people as we expand into space, and this design, architecture and hardware allows us to begin getting down that path.”