Fractionated Spacecraft

Orbital was awarded a contract for the initial development of an advanced space technology for the Department of Defense:

Orbital Sciences Corporation (NYSE: ORB), a world leader in smaller-sized civil government and national security satellites, announced today that it has been selected by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), Arlington, VA, to develop a Phase 1 concept for System F6 (Future Fast, Flexible, Fractionated, Free-Flying Spacecraft united by Information eXchange). DARPA is the central research and development organization for the Department of Defense (DoD).

They could only come up with six "F’s"? Come on.

To simplify (sort-of), the concept is called "fractionated spacecraft," which is described in this 2006 paper (pdf):

We note that the everlarger monolithic spacecraft of today are notoriously unresponsive. We then suggest a novel architectural paradigm, which we call fractionated spacecraft, whereby a satellite is decomposed into a set of similar or dissimilar component modules which interact wirelessly while in cluster orbits.

How is fractionated spacecraft more responsive than their larger, monolithic mainstays? (link)

According to DARPA such a virtual satellite effectively constitutes a "bus in the sky" – wherein customers need only provide and deploy a payload module suited to their immediate mission need, with the supporting features supplied by a global network of infrastructure modules already resident on-orbit and at critical ground locations. In addition, there can be sharing of resources between various "spacecraft" that are within sufficient range for communication.DARPA said the within the F6 network all subsystems and payloads can be treated like a uniquely addressable computing peripheral or network device.

Orbital is pretty excited:

“F6 has the potential to be a game-changing event in the history of military space systems in the same way that the internet revolutionized data communications,” stated Mr. Gregg Burgess, Orbital’s Vice President for National Security Systems in the Advanced Programs Group. “DARPA and Orbital have had a long and productive partnership leading to major innovations such as the Pegasus launch vehicle and numerous advanced small satellites. System F6 could transform today’s military space architecture to create a truly networked system of systems in space.”