Situation Report: Is DARPA’s Phoenix Program Intelligence-Related?

DARPA's Phoenix Program
The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the out-there research arm of the United States Department of Defense, is well known for it’s futuristic and bleeding-edge technology research projects. Often times, the Agency’s highflying efforts seem to protrude a motto of “failure is an option”. In fact, a 2003 article in The Los Angeles Times states that DARPA’s failure rates are between 85 and 90 percent. But this has not prevented the Agency from trying out new things, which sometimes help shape the future. It’s predecessor, Advanced Research Projects Agency, renamed DARPA in 1972, helped create what is today the Internet. Multiplexed Information and Computing Service (aka UNIX), Speech Interpretation and Recognition Interface (Siri, that female voice on your iPhone —yup, she’s a spinout from a DARPA Artificial Intelligence project called CALO), and Onion Routing (core technique for anonymous communications over computer networks, i.e. the base technology underlying Tor), were all funded, in part, by DARPA. Unsurprisingly, DARPA is at it again. The question remains, though, can the hype become a reality or will the new effort find a home in the vast majority of DARPAs forward-looking failed adventures?

On October 20, 2011, DARPA announced the Phoenix Program, explaining that it was seeking to repurpose components from communication satellites operating in geosynchronous orbit (GEO). As the Agency explains, “the Phoenix program envisions developing a new class of very small ‘satlets,’ similar to nano satellites, which could be sent to the GEO region […] attaching such satlets “to the antenna of a non-functional cooperating satellite robotically, essentially creating a new space system”.

Explaining further, DARPA states, “a payload orbital delivery system […] will also be designed to safely house the satlets for transport aboard a commercial satellite launch”. With an orbital tender or “satellite servicing” vehicle operating in GEO, “the PODS would then be released […] and link up with the tender to become part of the satellite servicing station’s ‘tool belt’”.

While that is plenty of technical data to digest, if you are space watcher, you know full well the amount of debris orbiting the Earth and the constant challenges it poses to manned and unmanned space flight. If not, please check out this NASA photograph, which visually represents the amount of debris and defunct satellites orbiting the Earth —it is worth a looksee just to see it visually.

Analyzing DARPA Aims and Apertures

IntelNews reached out to DARPA’s program manager for the Phoenix Program, Dave Barnhart, to request comment and clarification on the programs aims, objectives and goals. Barnhart, who joined DARPA in 2010, having previously served as the Director and Co-Founder of the Space Engineering Research Center at the University of Southern California, explained in an email that the Phoenix program’s goal “is to develop and demonstrate technologies to cooperatively harvest and re-use valuable components from retired, nonworking satellites in GEO and demonstrate the ability to create new space systems at greatly reduced cost”.

Continuing, Barnhart told intelNews: “Phoenix seeks to demonstrate around-the-clock, globally persistent communication capability for warfighters more economically, by robotically removing and re-using GEO-based space apertures and antennas from de-commissioned satellites in the graveyard or disposal orbit”.

Early Detection & Intelligence Platforms

If achievable, the economic and financial incentives of repurposing already “up-there” assets is clearly laudable. But the question of which type of satellites and in what orbit such a program could extend to is of particular interest, even if it is looking beyond the horizon of a successful Phoenix program. The reason for this is that, if DARPA’s efforts are successful, the significance and consequence of having space-based platforms that can fix, repair, and augment other satellites quickly and efficiently would be a dramatic and vitally important strategic advantage for US security and intelligence efforts.

The US Air Force’s Defense Support Program (DSP), which served as America’s early warning and detection system for ballistic and intercontinental missiles, space launches, and nuclear detonations, is being replaced by the Space-Based Infrared System (SBIR). This new advanced system is expected to integrate more effectively with future missile defense efforts. It currently maintains several satellites operating in what is known as a highly elliptical orbit (HEO). Given the benefits of satellites working in HEO —suitable for communications in the higher latitudes, slower moving, with a longer dwell time over a target area because satellites move more slowly when father away from the Earth, etc— understanding the target of the Phoenix program and its limitations is significant to the holistic frame of reference.

Our efforts to confirm that DARPA was particularly interested in proving that replacing such assets was possible through successes operating in GEO were largely deflected, but not entirely discarded. DARPA’s Barnhart explained to intelNews that the program wasn’t focused on all the possible orbits of satellites and that the program was really focused on GEO. The reasoning, Barnhart explained, was that “GEO is a unique environment that allows relatively low maneuvering fuel around it, versus the higher fuel required for what is considered highly elliptical orbits (HEO), medium earth orbits (MEO) or low earth orbit (LEO)”.

Phoenix’ Focus on GEO and Not DSP

A veteran of the business, who has spent more than 20 years as a space operations officer and signals intelligence analyst, and asked not to be named, told intelNews that the Phoenix program not focusing on DSP or SBIR systems made sense. “I don’t see them doing this kind of thing with a DSP satellite given that the typical causes of failure of these birds involves subsystems that are not small or modular”. Cautioning that he had no direct knowledge of this particular DARPA program, but leveraging his decades as an operational expert in the field, he observed: “Phoenix developers are hoping to ultimately put a variety of modular subsystems in the orbital ‘toolkit’ of satlets [or irreducibly minimum or barebones satellites]. Failed subsystems will probably not be easily accessible to a robotic device or easily spliced around”.

The Time Horizon: Operational Context

Since DARPA’s Phoenix program is focused exclusively on assets in GEO, at least for the time being, the question quickly becomes how soon will it be before there are ‘satlets’ —the mini satellites that can robotically remove and re-use components from what was once deemed orbital space junk into something that makes defunct satellites operational again?

Well…on July 26, several defense contractors announced that DARPA’s Tactical Technologies Office had started to awarded contracts to support Phoenix Technologies Program.

Getting to initial operational capability (IOC) is dependent upon the technical challenges the program faces, the investment required, and how much support it can secure from the US Congress (or how generous Congress will be with loosening its purse strings), and the support from other government elements who directly benefit from the program. According to sources, assuming things go according to plan and the stars are aligned properly, the IOC benchmark is likely achievable in 5 to 10 years, meaning it will not be operational or deployed, but it would certainly be leaps and bounds closer. It also means the project could become so bogged down it never actually sees the outer atmosphere.

‘Curiouser and curiouser’

So what are the Mad Hatters of DARPA really after as they leap headlong into the rabbit hole? US national security efforts, particularly with its space-based assets are always working to provide more robust and cost effective ways to replace capabilities that are lost in space overtime or malfunctioning. Launching a single pound into space can cost as much as $10,000, so it is no wonder that finding alternatives is desirable.

Aside from the cost there are also strategic military implications for DARPA’s Phoenix program, which makes sense, as DARPA’s self-described mission is to “maintain the technological superiority of the US military”. Should the program be successful, it would make it significantly more difficult for America’s adversaries to interdict and disrupt space-based communications assets working with terrestrial based warfighters. This is important because the US military continues to transform its warfighting capabilities and integrate them with net-centric warfare capabilities.

In turn, adversaries will have to take into consideration a space-based replacement advantage held by the US when evaluating the cost benefit of attacking space-based assets. This effectively creates a deterrence capacity, something which no country operating in space currently maintains to such a forward-looking extent. If the US can replace assets that were knocked out by an adversary quickly and at minimal cost, the upside benefit of going after such platforms becomes strategically depleted and potentially counter productive.

Of course, this is speculative, but shouldn’t be dismissed outright because DARPA’s on the case and it seems with contracts signed within the medium term possibility of reality. Even so, it is clearly dependent upon how effective and successful the Phoenix program will be, and at its core, how fast each lost or malfunctioning space-based asset can be replaced or corrected.

But loud elephants can talk silently, too, so one has to wonder if DSP and SBIR birds are waiting in the wings or at the very least being strongly considered for a future iteration of a Phoenix 2.0.

From idea, to concept, to proposal, to solicitation, to contract, and finally, to reality, DARPA continues to pursue groundbreaking innovation by challenging and rewriting the lines between brilliance and the cusps of fiction. The challenge and question remains, however, can the reality live up to the hype? Like all things DARPA, it will be interesting to watch and see the progression and development of this effort.


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