Wireless communications platform for spaceflight development

Wednesday, 09 January, 2013

The US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) recently selected Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) to provide a flight low-rate crosslink wireless communications platform for the System F6 Program.

The program, which is envisioned to culminate in an on-orbit demonstration in 2015-2016, is designed to validate a new space mission concept in which a cluster of smaller, wirelessly connected spacecraft replaces the typical single spacecraft carrying numerous instruments and payloads.

This ‘fractionated’ architecture may enhance survivability, responsiveness and adaptability compared to the traditional monolithic spacecraft. The SwRI K-band radio is a core element of the open source F6 Developers Kit (FDK), which allows any spacecraft to participate in an F6-enabled cluster.

The wireless crosslink radio incorporates a continuously active communications channel with availability and latency via a time division multiple access (TDMA) protocol to provide a solution for a variety of mission communications needs.

Unique to the radio is a core architecture that accommodates a continuous data link among the cluster members and also supports inclusion of third-party, point-to-point, high-rate data links. The SwRI-developed F6 Wireless Inter-Module Communications System (F6WICS) protocol incorporates a data link layer ready for integration with higher level network protocols to allow distributed computing with mechanisms for maximising bandwidth allocations.

“As a non-profit organisation, Southwest Research Institute is suited to support the DARPA System F6 FDK through the development of the K-band crosslink solution,” says Dr Mark Tapley, a staff engineer in the SwRI Space Science and Engineering Division and principal investigator for the wireless system.

“System F6 is truly a game-changing paradigm for space missions that has broad applicability across not only national security programs, but also traditional scientific missions in which mission durability, reconfigurability, distributed measurements and expandability are enabling technologies.”

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