AFRL Looking into New LEO Technologies

Illustration of Landsat satellite. Courtesy of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center.

A recent Air Force Research Laboratory solicitation asks industry to pitch new ideas for handling space situational awareness, communication, and geolocation and timing from low Earth orbit, as the Space Development Agency hashes out its own ideas for a plethora of military-use satellites in LEO.

The military is pushing for space systems that are cheaper, more responsive, and introduce new capabilities into low Earth orbit.

“The general mission scenarios of space remain the same, but require new techniques to meet future requirements while keeping cost down, achieving acceptable performance, and maintaining significant advantage over our adversaries,” the May 29 request for information said.

AFRL notes a “significant number” of government and commercial organizations want to figure out how to make a satellite network more resilient by spreading capabilities across systems, so if one satellite becomes unusable, others could take its place.

Researchers are “interested in helping to reduce the risk and improve the probability of successful transition for those technologies or manufacturing processes that have been identified to successfully achieve this constellation construct,” the RFI said. In particular, AFRL will look at spacecraft bus and payload costs and manufacturing techniques, the effect automation, modularity, and new standards may have on building systems, tapping into nontraditional parts suppliers, and how risky it may be to scale back the qualification process for spacecraft materials and components.

“We are interested in both innovations for current production as well as new ‘clean sheet’ concepts designed and manufactured for this new vision,” AFRL said.

They want to tap into ideas like open systems architectures, 3D printing, commercially available products adapted for defense use, and accelerated testing.

“Low-cost space requires new practices, outside-of-the-box thinking, and the mentality of designing to limited-life requirements,” AFRL said. “These new low-cost constellations require an increased acceptance of risk, non-traditional application of materials, qualification, and manufacturing processes, and the ability to design, build, and reconstitute faster.”

Responses to the RFI are due July 1.