WASHINGTON — The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency said it selected teams to help develop an on-orbit satellite communications translator within just eight days of releasing a formal solicitation. Now, the Pentagon agency charged with making investments in transformational technology wants to apply that quick approach to other programs.
DARPA announced last month that 11 teams would participate in Phase 1 its Space-Based Adaptive Communications Node program, dubbed Space-BACN, an in-space terminal designed to help government and commercial satellites communicate.
The capability is increasing in relevance as companies such as SpaceX and organizations including the Space Development Agency launch large constellations of satellites to low Earth orbit, within 1,000 kilometers of the planet’s surface. Awardees range from universities to commercial companies, some of which have never worked with the U.S. Department of Defense. DARPA didn’t announce the total value of the agreements.
That selection followed a year-long process beginning in September 2021 of outreach to industry and academia and a proposal process in which DARPA engaged with prospective bidders as they developed concepts for the program.
Phil Root, director of DARPA’s strategic technology office, said this week that the informal, pre-solicitation phase, which included abstracts and oral presentations, allowed the agency to familiarize itself with the various designs and approaches so that when a final solicitation was released, it could make its decision quickly.
“Their proposal is submitted and rigorously reviewed, but it’s reviewed within the context of all that we’ve learned over the past few months,” Root said during an Aug. 31 presentation at the DARPA Forward conference in Fort Collins, Colo. “This is a different approach that matches the technology with the kind of performers that deliver at the speed and scale that we want.”
Space-BACN Program Manager Greg Kuperman said the selection process was geared toward attracting a diverse range of providers that could offer innovative commercial solutions.
“We intentionally made making a proposal to our Space-BACN solicitations as easy as possible, because we wanted to tap into both established companies and the large pool of innovative, small tech companies, many of which don’t have the time or resources to figure out complicated government contracting processes,” he said in an Aug. 10 statement.
Programs traditionally move through a much more extensive review process, slowing down the acquisition timeline, Root said. The approach DARPA took for Space-BACN worked so well the agency plans to apply it to other efforts. He noted that while it’s “not a panacea” and may not work for program managers that can’t dedicate as much time on the front-end of an acquisition, “it is a tool in our quiver.”
DARPA chose Space-BACN development teams across three technical categories. The first group of providers, CACI, MBRYONICS and Mynaric, will produce designs for a flexible, small, low-cost optical system. The second focus area, aimed at creating a reconfigurable modem, includes II-VI Aerospace and Defense, Arizona State University and Intel Federal.
The final group, which will identify the key command-and-control elements needed to support the mission and develop an interface to connect various satellite constellations, is made up of SpaceX, Telesat, SpaceLink, Viasat and Kuiper Government Solutions, a subsidiary of Amazon.
Phase 1 of the effort will last 14 months and culminate with a preliminary design review in the first two technical areas after which DARPA will select performers to move into an 18-month second phase. Companies in the third group will participate in a demonstration at the end of Phase 1. They will continue to evolve their designs in Phase 2, applying them to more “challenging and dynamic scenarios,” DARPA said in an Aug. 10 statement.
Courtney Albon is C4ISRNET’s space and emerging technology reporter. She has covered the U.S. military since 2012, with a focus on the Air Force and Space Force. She has reported on some of the Defense Department’s most significant acquisition, budget and policy challenges.