Satellites are renowned for being difficult to upgrade. The machines are physically tough to reach because they are thousands of the miles above the surface of Earth. Engineers have spent years designing satellites with the presumption that the software and hardware they launch into space will be all they get. This encouraged the development of elegant satellite designs that would persist for many years in the space before being substituted by a satellite with improved technologies.
In recent years, this thinking has begun to shift. New on-orbit services are being pioneered by companies like Astroscale and Northrop Grumman, which might enable everything from additional fuel for moving to satellite repairs utilizing mechanical arms. Companies are adopting software-defined payloads, which the military may alter for new uses utilizing the hardware in orbit.
The United States Space Force is contributing to these initiatives. In addition, Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is funding robotic arms that have the potential to revolutionize satellite repair in space. On the software part, GPS III satellites, the most recent version launched by the military, have a 70% digital mission data section, the navigation system’s key piece. The GPS IIIF satellites, which will be launched following the GPS III series, will have entirely digital navigation payloads developed by L3Harris, giving ground operators additional flexibility in how they utilize the satellites.
However, the software can only do so much, and in the end, the on-orbit GPS satellites are constrained by their hardware. That, however, may soon change.
Lockheed Martin intends to launch two tiny cubesat experiments later this year that might open the way for on-orbit hardware modifications for GPS satellites and potentially other Space Force satellites. In summary, the company aims to combine additional hardware (such as data storage, new sensor, or processor) with a cubesat, then connect the cubesat to the GPS satellite through a port on the bus in orbit. Maybe the cubesat stays attached for the remainder of the satellite’s existence, or maybe it undocks after a specified task is completed.
“Today, when we and many others develop satellites, we launch with what we have. “Things like software definition are starting to change,” Director of space technology at Lockheed Martin showcases David Barnhart informed C4ISRNET prior to 36th annual Space Symposium. “However, this is significant in that it is the first occasion that you can effectively replace the hardware.”
In-Space Upgrade Satellite System of Lockheed Martin, or LINUSS, is made up of two 12U cubesats — each about the size of the 4-slice toaster — are part of a collection of demonstrations which will build up to the very first on-orbit update that will actually occur with 13th GPS IIIF space vehicle.