DARPA Moves Forward With Phoenix, ALASA and XS-1 Projects

Artist's conception of a nominal X-S1 vehicle. (Credit: DARPA)
Artist’s conception of a nominal X-S1 vehicle. (Credit: DARPA)

By Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

DARPA’s proposed budget for FY 2015 calls for a significant increase in its Experimental Spaceplane One (XS-1) program and smaller boosts in the Airborne Launch Assist Space Access (ALASA) program and Project Phoenix, budget documents show.

The defense agency has requested $27 million for re-useable XS-1 space plane this year, a significant boost over the $10 million being spent for FY 2014. With the increase in funding, DARPA plans to conduct a preliminary design review (PDR) and select a single vendor for final design, fabrication and flight test in the coming fiscal year, which will start on Oct. 1.

The XS-1 program is designed to launch payloads weighing 3,000-5,000 lbs (1,361-2,268 kg) to low earth orbit at a cost at least 10 times less expensive to current launch vehicles. DARPA accepted proposals from potential vendors earlier this year and is currently evaluating them.

DARPA SPACE-RELATED RESEARCH PROGRAMS (MILLIONS OF DOLLARS)
ProgramDescriptionFY 2013FY 2014FY 2015 RequestTotal
Experimental Spaceplane One (XS-1)Development of a reusable space vehicle capable of delivering payloads of 3,000 to 5,000 lbs (1,361-2,268 kg) at 10 times lower cost than present systems.$10.0$27.0$37.0
Airborne Launch Assist Space Access (ALASA)Development of an air-launch system capable of placing a 100-lb (45-kg) payload into low Earth orbit for $1 million.$29.237$42.5$55.0$126.737
SeeMeDevelopment of very low cost constellation of inexpensive, disposable small satellites routinely and inexpensively put in orbit through low cost horizontal
(aircraft-released) launches.
$8.511$1.0$9.511
PhoenixDevelopment of on-orbit robotics technologies for servicing spacecraft and salvaging components from aging satellites.$40.475$60.046$65.0$165.521
Space Domain Awareness (SDA)Development of advanced space surveillance sensors to better detect, track, and characterize space objects, with an emphasis on deep space objects.$18.0$18.0$19.883$55.883
Space Surveillance Telescope (SST)Demonstration of an advanced ground-based optical system to enable detection and tracking of faint objects in space, while providing rapid, wide-area search capability.$10.204$8.0$8.0$26.204
Optical Aperture Self-Assembly in Space (OASIS)Demonstrate the feasibility of constructing large optical apertures in orbit from a number of smaller modular components that self-organize in space.$5.0$5.0
System F6A program to replace the traditional monolithic military mega-satellite with a cluster of smaller spacecraft working in tandem.$30.0$3.0$33.0
TOTAL:$136.427$142.546$179.883$458.856

ALASA is focused on the other end of the payload spectrum. The program is focused on developing a system that can air-launch an 100-lb (45-kg) spacecraft into low Earth orbit for $1 million. The goal is to be able to launch satellites from anywhere in the world to respond quickly to crises.

DARPA has requested $55 million for the program in FY 2015, an increase from the $42.5 million being spent this year. During the upcoming fiscal year, the goal is to conduct launches to demonstrate achieve, including 100 pounds into low earth orbit.

The defense agency has not requested any additional funds in FY 2015 for the SeeMe program, which is focused on developing low-cost, disposable satellites that can be air-launched via the ALASA system.

The ultimate goal of the SeeMe program is to provide near-real-time satellite imagery from space to soldiers in the field using handheld devices. Near-real-time is described as being no older than 90 minutes.

The agency’s SeeMe goals for the current fiscal year include completing technology prototype units, performing functional and environmental tests, and demonstrating  operations.

The defense agency has asked for $65 million for Project Phoenix, which aims to develop technologies for robotic space servicing and salvaging parts from old spacecraft. The request represents a slight increase from the $60 million being spent this year.

DARPA plans to launch early versions of low-Earth orbit “satlet” to test out technologies in FY 2015. The agency’s funding request would bring the total spent on the program for FY 2013 through FY 2015 to $165.52 million.

A pair of programs — the Space Domain Awareness (SDA) and Space Surveillance Telescope (SST) — at aimed at improving the military’s capability to track objects in space.

“SDA will investigate revolutionary technologies in two areas: 1) advanced space surveillance sensors to better detect, track, and characterize space objects, with an emphasis on deep space objects, and 2) space surveillance data collection and data
processing/ fusion to provide automated data synergy,” according to DARPA budget documents.

“Current space surveillance sensors cannot detect, track, or determine the future location and threat potential of small advanced technology spacecraft in deep space orbits, where a majority of DoD spacecraft are located,” the documents state. “Additionally, servicing missions to geosynchronous (GEO) orbits will require exquisite situational awareness, from ultra-high-accuracy debris tracking for mission assurance at GEO orbits to high resolution imaging of GEO spacecraft for service mission planning.”

The SST program is focused on a ground-based optical system that enables the “detection and tracking of faint objects in space, while providing rapid, wide-area search capability,” according to DARPA.

The Optical Aperture Self-Assembly in Space (OASIS) is a new start for FY 2015. It is aimed at assembling large optical systems in orbit instead of on the ground.

“The Optical Apertures Self-assembling in Space program seeks to demonstrate the feasibility of constructing large optical apertures in orbit from a number of smaller modular components that self-organize in space,” according to DARPA budget documents. “The program will demonstrate the technologies needed to assemble a large (>5m) and near-diffraction limited optical aperture from modular components that are launched as separate payloads.”

DARPA has canceled System F6, which was designed to replace large defense satellites with clusters of smaller ones that worked together. The agency canceled the effort last year after spending nearly $200 million on it. Funding for the effort was reduced from $30 million in FY 2013 to a mere three million this year. The agency has requested no money for the F6 project in FY 2015.

Below are descriptions of t he XS-1, ALASA, See-Me and Phoenix program drawn from DARPA’s budget documents.

Experimental Spaceplane One (XS-1)

XS-1_drawing
FY 2014: $10 million
FY 2015: $27 million

The XS-1 program will mature the technologies and operations for low cost, persistent and responsive space access and global reach. Past efforts have identified and demonstrated critical enabling technologies including composite or light weight structures, propellant tanks, thermal protection systems, rocket propulsion and advanced avionics/software. A critically important technology gap is integration into a flight demonstration able to deliver aircraft-like operability. The program will validate key technologies on the ground, and then fabricate an X-Plane to demonstrate: 1) 10 flights in 10 days, 2) Mach 10+ flight, and 3) 10X lower cost space access for cargoes 3,000-5,000 lbs to low earth orbit. A key goal is validating the critical technologies for a wide range of next generation high speed aircraft enabling new military capabilities including worldwide reconnaissance, global transport small responsive space access aircraft and affordable spacelift. The anticipated transition partners are the Air Force, Navy and commercial sector.

FY 2014 Plans:

  • Develop a conceptual design for the XS-1 demonstration system including detailed structural analysis and mass properties.
  • Perform system level trade studies to identify alternative configurations and define the tradespace for XS-1.
  • Accomplish planning activities to prepare for contract award.

FY 2015 Plans:

  • Perform analysis on risk mitigation strategies for the propulsion system, thermal protection system and composite materials.
  • Conduct a mid-phase Conceptual Design and Systems Requirements Review.
  • Conduct component and subsystem testing and verification.
  • Conduct a Preliminary Design Review (PDR) and select a single vendor for final design, fabrication and flight test.

Airborne Launch Assist Space Access (ALASA)

Credit: DARPA
Credit: DARPA

FY 2013: $29.237 million
FY 2014: $42.5 million
FY 2015 Request: $55 million

Description: The goal of the Airborne Launch Assist Space Access (ALASA) program is to mature and demonstrate technologies for cost effective, routine, reliable, access to low earth orbit (LEO). ALASA seeks improvements in cost, responsiveness, flexibility, and resilience with a single approach. ALASA will enable small satellites to be deployed to orbit from an airborne platform, allowing performance improvement, reducing range costs, and flying more frequently, which drives cost per event down. The ability to relocate and launch from virtually any major runway around the globe reduces the time needed to deploy a satellite system. Launch point offset permits essentially any possible orbit direction to be achieved without concerns for launch direction imposed by geography. Finally, launch point offset allows the entire operation to be moved should a particular fixed airfield become unavailable due to natural phenomena or other issues. Challenges include, but are not limited to: in-air separation of aircraft and orbit-insertion launch stages, development of alternatives to current range processes, control of weight and margin under a hard gross weight limit, and achieving a cost per flight of $1 million, including range support costs, to deploy satellites on the order of 100 lb. The anticipated transition partners are the Air Force and Army.

FY 2013 Accomplishments:

  • Completed initial test plans for flight demonstrator.
  • Completed risk management plan.
  • Conducted preliminary design review and selected enabling and enhancing technologies for incorporation into system concepts.
  • Conducted critical design review and initiated detailed design.
  • Integrated selected enabling and enhancing technologies on launch assist aircraft.

FY 2014 Plans:

  • Conduct trade studies of additional enabling technology to include propellants, manufacturing, mission planning and range support software, and tracking and flight termination software.
  • Conduct critical design review of demonstration system and develop flight demonstrator.
  • Complete ALASA vehicle flight readiness review.
  • Perform propulsion and system risk reduction testing.
  • Conduct captive carry and aircraft compatibility flight tests.

FY 2015 Plans:

  • Initiate demonstration of ALASA vehicle launches including launch readiness reviews.
  • Conduct launches to demonstrate program goals, including 100 pounds into low earth orbit.
  • Conduct analysis of launch performance metrics and identify opportunities for system design and integration optimization.
  • Continue transition coordination.

Space Enabled Effects for Military Engagements (SeeMe)

Credit: DARPA
Credit: DARPA

FY 2013: $8.511 million
FY 2014: $1 million

Description: The Army, Air Force, intelligence community, and other potential users require affordable support to the tactical warfighter via space. The goal of the SeeMe program is to demonstrate the ability to get near-real-time, i.e., no older than ~90 minutes, images directly to individual users’ handheld devices from space. This will be accomplished via a very low cost constellation of inexpensive, disposable small satellites routinely and inexpensively put in orbit through low cost horizontal (aircraft-released) launches. The current methodology for satisfying imagery needs from space is to build multipurpose systems with very high reliability and long life, at very high costs, and launch them on expensive vertical launch boosters. In most cases, commercial or military, the time to deliver an already built space intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance system suitable to meet tactically desired ground sample distance is on the order of 20+ months, and the data delivery mechanism is typically more than several days (and up to weeks) to the end user. SeeMe intends to radically shorten the entire cycle: ground development time, launch cadence, and on-orbit request-to-image-delivery time through new satellite manufacturing techniques, advanced low-cost aperture technologies, leveraging alternative launch concepts, and a novel direct-to-user command and data exfiltration architecture. The anticipated transition partners are the Air Force and the Army.

FY 2013 Accomplishments:

  • Completed trade studies on hardware design and constellation options that show trades between altitude, resolution and delivery time after request to ground user.
  • Executed technical prototype integration options for hardware level development.
  • Demonstrated applicability to commercial production environment using commercial off the shelf (COTS) based hardware.
  • Began verification of radio frequency and optical aperture template and began prototype construction.
  • Completed ground user hardware interface study/development, including specific ConOps with warfighter in the field.
  • Completed hardware- and system-level risk reduction tests, including thermal cycling tests, initial field tests, and balloon flight tests for enabling technologies for optics, deployable antennas, radio communication and high performance computing and algorithms.

FY 2014 Plans:

  • Prepare critical design of system hardware and software for the satellites.
  • Complete prototype hardware field demonstrations (through balloon testing) to support radio link and downlink direct to user handhelds.
  • Complete technology prototype units, perform functional and environmental tests, and demonstrate operation.

Phoenix

Phoenix satellite concept. (Credit: DARPA)
Phoenix satellite concept. (Credit: DARPA)

FY 2013: $40.475 million
FY 2014: $60.046 million
FY 2015: $65.000 million

Description: To date, servicing operations have never been conducted on spacecraft beyond low earth orbit (LEO). A large number of national security and commercial space systems operate at geosynchronous earth orbit (GEO) altitudes, furthermore, many end-of-life or failed spacecraft drift without control through portions of the GEO belt, creating a growing hazard to operational spacecraft. Technologies for servicing of spacecraft with the expectation that such servicing would involve a mix of highly autonomous and remotely (i.e., ground-based) teleoperated robotic systems have been previously pursued. The Phoenix servicing program will build upon these legacy technologies, tackling the more complex GEO environment and expanding beyond pure traditional servicing functions. The program seeks to validate robotics operations in GEO suitable for a variety of potential servicing tasks with a Servicer/Tender, in full collaboration and cooperation with existing satellite owners. The program will examine utilization of ride-along capability to GEO supporting upgrading, repairing, assembling, and reconfiguring satellites. The program will include an early LEO flight experiment focused on satlets, as a path of risk reduction for modular assembly on orbit. Key challenges include robotic tool/end effector requirements, efficient orbital maneuvering of a servicing vehicle, robotic arm systems, and integration and efficient and low cost transportation of robotic tools. The anticipated transition partners are the Air Force and commercial spacecraft servicing providers.

FY 2013 Accomplishments:

  • Completed preliminary design of robotic servicing payload architecture and systems for Phoenix vehicle.
  • Developed payload orbital delivery systems (PODS) designs for commercial satellite ride-along as well as first working prototype for dispensement.
  • Initiated flight scale build of first satlets and demonstrated aggregation of performance functions in a ground testbed.
  • Initiated development and build of robotic servicing components including tools and toolbelt systems and selected a complete complement of tools for Phoenix.
  • Initiated six degree of freedom testbed on ground; began virtual system testing with the primary and secondary robotic arms.
  • Initiated telepresence simulation and began test qualification and training standards for Phoenix robotic operations.
  • Built first prototype of sensor suite for guidance and control on servicer and evaluated it with actual flight software algorithms.

FY 2014 Plans:

  • Complete critical design of robotic servicing system including primary and secondary robotic arms and toolbelt.
  • Deliver prototypes of various servicing tasks to robotic testbed for validation and integration with tools.
  • Complete mission validation testing inside a six degree of freedom testbed.
  • Complete critical design of tele-operations system.
  • Conduct pre-ship review for early LEO satlet experiment equipment and deliver to launch integrator.

FY 2015 Plans:

  • Launch early LEO satlet experiment and conduct experiment operations.
  • Complete delta critical design of satlets per lessons learned from LEO experiment.
  • Complete delta critical design of PODs.
  • Validate specific servicing mission types that maximize commercial and DoD operations.
  • Validate primary and secondary robotic hardware and software.