DARPA Proposes $127 Million in Space Spending

XS-1 entry (Credit: Northrop Grumman)
XS-1 entry (Credit: Northrop Grumman)

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has proposed spending $126.7 million on 10 space programs in FY 2016, including two initiatives designed to radically reduce the cost of launching payloads into space and a number of programs focused on in-orbit satellite servicing.

The budget is $53.2 million less than the $179.9 million will spend in the current fiscal year. While three programs would see major reductions in funding, DARPA would also start three new programs, including one focused on advanced propulsion technologies.

DARPA FY 2016 BUDGET REQUEST (Millions of Dollars)
FY 2016
Airborne Launch Assist Space Access (ALASA) $60$29-$31
Experimental Spaceplane One (XS-1) $27$30
Phoenix $55$19-$36
Robotic Servicing of Geostationary Satellites (RSGS) $4 $10$6
Space Surveillance Telescope (SST) $9 $9 —
Space Domain Awareness (SDA)$19.9$5.7-$14.2
Optical Aperture Self-Assembly in Space (OASIS) $5 $6 $1
Advanced Space Propulsion Technologies
Radar Net $6 –
Hallmark – $10 –
TOTALS: $179.9 $126.7-$53.2


DARPA’s Airborne Launch Assist Space Access (ALASA) system will see its first test launches in FY 2016. The program involves launching a rocket developed by Boeing from an unmodified F-15. The goal is to reduce the cost of putting a 45-kg (100 lb) satellite into orbit to $1 million.

Boeing's ALASA launch system features a F-15E aircraft and an innovative booster. (Credit: Boeing)
Boeing’s ALASA launch system features a F-15E aircraft and an innovative booster. (Credit: Boeing)

DARPA is planning to conduct three test launches to qualify the launch vehicle’s hardware and systems. An additional nine launches are planned to place satellites in low Earth orbit. Boeing has plans to commercialize the technology.

With most of the development work done, ALASA’s budget has been cut in half from $60 million in FY 2015 to $29 million next year.


XS-1 concept vehicle (Credit: Masten Space Systems)
XS-1 concept vehicle (Credit: Masten Space Systems)

Last year, DARPA awarded contracts to Boeing, Masten Space Systems and Northrop Grumman for the Experimental Spaceplane One (XS-1) program, which aims to develop reusable launch vehicle technology to radically reduce the cost of lofting larger payloads.

DARPA expects to select one design for development by the time the fiscal year ends on Sept. 30. The agency would spend $30 million on refining the design next year, an increase of $3 million over what it is spending this year.

Satlets & PODs

Project Phoenix, which aims to advance on-orbit satellite servicing, is looking forward to two flight tests that will demonstrate the operation of a new class of tiny satellites and the delivery of those spacecraft to geosynchronous orbit (GEO).

NovaWurks, of Los Alaimos, Calif., has signed an agreement with Spaceflight Inc., of Seattle, to launch the eXCITe “satlet” the company developed under Project Phoenix. NovaWurks’ tiny “satlet” will be part of approximately 2,650 lbs. (1,200 kg.) of other rideshare spacecraft that will aboard Spaceflight’s SHERPA in-space transportation platform.

A satlet is a small, independent module weighing roughly 15 lbs. (7 kg) that incorporates essential satellite functions such as power supplies, movement controls and sensors. Satlets can be combined in different combinations and sizes to create payloads capable of performing a variety of space missions.

DARPA also plans to test a new commercial ride-along capability called Payload Orbital Delivery (POD) to deliver satlets to geosynchronous orbit. The satlet will be attached to a communications satellite and be deployed when the spacecraft reaches the intended altitude.

“PODs are designed to help take advantage of the frequency of launches and hosted payload services that commercial satellites now provide and enable faster and lower-cost delivery of future payloads to GEO,” according to DARPA.

Robotic Servicing

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

The Robotic Servicing of Geostationary Satellites (RSGS) program is an outgrowth of Project Phoenix. The goal is to develop the systems and capabilities for in-orbit satellite servicing.

“The program will establish the ability to assist with mechanical malfunctions such as solar array deployment; provide assistive thrust to increase the flexibility of fleets of operational satellites; and use camera systems to perform very detailed inspections to help troubleshoot satellite problems and increase transparency of GEO operations,” the budget document says.

RSGS’s three objectives for FY 2016 include:

  • establishing a partnership with satellite bus provider;
  • developing interfaces between servicer satellite and government-provided robotic payload; and,=
  • developing comprehensive test plan for robotics and for integrated system.

The program would receive $9 million next year, the same amount it received in FY 2015.

An OASIS in Space

The Optical Apertures Self-assembling in Space (OASIS) program is aimed at using small, modular components to construct large optical apertures in space.

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,” the budget document said.

The OASIS program would receive an increase of $1 million to $6 million in FY 2016.

Space Domain Awareness (SDA)

The Space Domain Awareness program aims to protect defense satellites by developing sensors capable of detecting, tracking and determining the future locations and threat potentials of small, advanced technology spacecraft in deep-space orbits.

SDA will also support GEO servicing missions that “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.”

“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, data archival, and data processing/fusion to provide automated data synergy,” the budget document states.

Space Surveillance Telescope (SST)

SST is focused on detecting and tracking faint objects in space using ground-based optical systems. It also provides rapid, wide-area search capability.

The data fusion and advanced algorithms developed under SST are being leveraged by the SDA program to assist in tracking objects in space.

Radar Net (NEW)

Radar Net’s goal goal is to develop “lightweight, low power, wideband capability for radio frequency (RF) communications and remote sensing for a space based-platform….Radar Net will enable small, low-cost sensor launches on short timescales with rapid technology refresh capabilities.” DARPA is requesting $6 million for this program.

Advanced Space Propulsion Technologies (NEW)

DARPA wants $2 million to evaluate technologies designed to allow orders of magnitude improvements in propulsion and missions, including “new materials and new propellants, novel thruster and engine designs, and methods/processes to increase efficiency at lower cost.”

Hallmark (NEW)

This program “seeks to demonstrate a space Battle Management Command and Control (BMC2) capability to provide U.S. senior leadership the tools needed to effectively manage space assets in real time.” Hallmark’s budget would be $10 million.