Logo: University of Southern California

Viterbi Software Will Plot Possibilities for F6 Satellite

Gordon Roesler and Dorit Hochbaum will work with Lockheed Martin on DARPA's ‘fractionated' orbiter

May 20, 2011 —

The USC Viterbi School of Engineering has been selected to develop the design software for the F6 satellite.

Artist's conception of F6 at work
The F6 is a project of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). It is “fractionated”—that is, it is not a single satellite, but a cluster of modules orbiting the earth together. The modules communicate with one another like computers on a network.

The Viterbi School’s Information Sciences Institute (ISI) has partnered with the Lockheed Martin Corporation on a 2 ½ year, $5 million effort to develop software to guide directions for designs, missions, and components for its revolutionary concept.

Gordon Roesler, a center director at ISI, is the principal investigator. He says he is no stranger to designing unusual satellites. Years ago, while working at DARPA, he developed a satellite that had robotic arms—a “tow truck in space.” Its mission was to move satellites between different orbits to keep them useful longer. It was displayed on the cover of the magazine Aerospace America in 2006.

“The F6 program will lead to a whole new approach to exploring and using space,” Roesler said. “Our society gets many benefits from satellites today—GPS, HDTV, Google Earth, weather, climate monitoring. Why can’t a satellite be several free-flying modules instead of a single object? It gives more flexibility in how the system is launched into space. It allows you to add functionality any time you want. It lowers costs and makes the system more robust.”

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Gordon Roesler: "a whole new approach to exploring and using space"
The software that will form the core of the F6 design software uses artificial intelligence to sort through the many choices that designers have to make. Its inventor is Tatiana Kichkaylo, a computer scientist at ISI. A specialist in automated planning and scheduling, her work is finding numerous applications in the engineering of very complex systems, like F6.

ISI already conducts both R&D and educational programs on space vehicles. Its Space Engineering Research Center (SERC), co-managed with the Viterbi School Astronautics Department, trains students in the design, assembly and operation of small satellites. The Space Exploration Corporation, or SpaceX, located nearby in Hawthorne, launched one of SERC’s satellites, called CAERUS, into space last month. Another SERC satellite will be delivered in December and launched in 2012. One of the SERC graduate students, Lucy Hoag, helped to develop the software. She will be a key player in the F6 project.

Co-PI of the F6 team is operations research expert Professor Dorit Hochbaum of the Viterbi School Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering. She will address the optimization of the allocation of the functions to the small satellites. She will study scheduling of the mission launches to minimize costs as well as ways to improve the supply chain and production processes of the satellites. Hochbaum will also conduct fundamental studies of the economics and best approaches for building them.

Dorit Hochbaum: Optimizing allocations of functions
ISI was awarded a second contract for the F6 program as well, to develop the information architecture that lets the free-flying modules talk to each other. Leader of the F6 architecture project is Joe Touch, an expert in networks and satellite communications who is also a research associate professor in the Viterbi School.

“With USC’s expertise and with our team member Lockheed Martin, the F6 team will help DARPA achieve a very challenging schedule to build and launch F6,” said Roesler. “It will provide another application for ISI’s advanced design software. And there will be new opportunities for students to learn the space business, which is entering a new phase of growth and innovation.”