Modularity in satellite design is key to quick response

The Operationally Responsive Space Office is driving changes that shorten development times for military satellites.

The Defense Department's efforts to quickly establish networks in any region are extending into space. The Operationally Responsive Space Office (ORS), which has already overseen four launches, is driving changes that shorten development times for satellites.

ORS has demonstrated that it can respond quickly when urgent needs are determined by its five partners, DOD and the Army, Air Force, Navy and Marines. Two of the launches, ORS-1 and Tactical Satellite 4, were made this year.


Related coverage:

Air Force launches ORS-1 prototype satellite


With each launch, ORS is fine tuning its quick response processes and technologies. On the technical side, ORS now focuses on using more modular components and improving communications compatibility.

“One thing we’ve learned is that we want to focus on being interoperative with the current ground architecture,” said Valerie Skarupa, a spokeswoman at Kirtland Air Force Base, N.M., where ORS has been headquartered since its inception in 2007. “This has to fit into systems that let the warfighters talk and share information.”

The trend to standardized modules follows trends seen in computing and telecommunications, where cost and complexity are reduced by using standard interfaces instead of designing these basic elements for every program.

In 2010, ORS finalized a contract to design and launch a satellite built around modular buses and platforms. “We’re going to take this concept a step further and fly a modular system,” Skarupa said.

When common interfaces are used, modules such as sensors can quickly be commissioned quickly. For example, Goodrich Corp. converted an imager used on unmanned aerial vehicle platforms for use on the ORS-1. Modularity also lets more vendors compete, which should help increase the number of launches even as budgets shrink.

“As long as things plug into the standard interfaces, we can use modules from different vendors. Standardization will help us lower costs,” Skarupa said. “When costs come down, volume can go up.”

Modularity has always been a mainstay of the design processes. The bus on ORS-1, which was launched earlier this year at a cost of $226.3 million, helped set the stage for the latest project.

“The bus we used on ORS-1 was modular, but it is not as modular as the bus currently being designed for the ORS Office’s Modular Space Vehicle Program,” said Brendan Regan, ORS program manager at ATK Aerospace Systems Group. ATK completed the ORS-1 bus in about 17 months, shaving roughly seven months off the typical design cycle.

ORS now plans to focus on tactical systems such as TS-4. “We want to complement the capabilities of the strategic systems with low-cost tactical systems,” Skarupa said. “This changes the way we fight, it’s much more adaptable.”

ORS will also alter some of its design processes. It has already eliminated mission creep so its projects won’t be delayed by managers who add requirements. The ORS also lets vendors order some complex equipment before conventional design gates are opened, which helps shorten overall program schedules.

Suppliers also said when modules have already been used successfully, they can be deployed with fewer tests. It may also be possible to eliminate some redundant testing. Tests are run on components, modules, boxes, systems and on up the line to full vehicle tests. As vendors gain experience in these quick turn designs, program managers can better understand which tests provide value.

“We’ve done two of these projects, so we feel we’re ready to look at places where we don’t need redundant testing for every step,” Regan said.

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