Military Pulls The Plug On $200 Million Synchronized Satellites

DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, has cancelled its plans to demonstrate its formation-flying satellite program by 2015, effectively scrapping the program. The cancellation is largely attributed to poor management and a general lack of interest by the Pentagon.

The Future, Fast, Flexible, Fractionated Free-Flying Spacecraft, which is also goes by the more manageable name System F6, was an effort to break up complex and traditional military satellite, usually capable of doing a variety of functions from surveillance to communication, into smaller micro-satellites.

These smaller satellites would wirelessly link together to form a single system, sharing and using resources within a cluster. The aim of the program was to create a cluster capable of carrying on the tasks of a larger military recon craft while being flexible enough to maneuver each part in order to evade kinetic attacks from other spacecraft or orbiting objects. Additionally, if one micro satellite were to be damaged, another could simply maneuver to take over its place and function.

"From a protection standpoint, if all your stuff is integrated on one giant satellite, that satellite is a sitting duck that cannot protect itself from kinetic attacks," Brian Weeden, a Colorado space expert told Wired's Danger Room. "By integrating all your things into one satellite, you also make the acquisition of satellites more complicated ... you can't afford a lot of them."

The F6 could have reduced the cost of launching recon satellites into space, replacing a single heavy satellite with several cheaper and lighter ones.

But the program was poorly managed, with many of its elements spread out across different contractors and no central hub to manage its collective bits and pieces. That, coupled with efforts by the U.S. Air Force to create its own disaggregated satellites, spelled doom for the program.

Contractors who've received funding to contribute to F6, Space News reports, will still honor the program's contracts, though perhaps with some modifications in mind.

"We're going to rescope the effort ... to define the end state of the software and develop and deliver it," George Davis, president and founder of Emergent Space Systems of Greenbelt, M., said in an interview with Space News.

Wired reports that DARPA may also engineer F6's software to fit within the agency's Phoenix program. That program aims to launch a satellite capable of collecting and modifying defunct spacecraft to make smaller satellites capable of orbiting in clusters.

So the F6 project may be dead, but its spirit lives on.

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