Radios are wireless. Telephones are wireless. Computers are wireless. And in the next step forward in space systems, satellite equipment could become wireless too. Northrop Grumman Corp. is developing a robust, radiation-hardened, wireless spacecraft bus under a $4.1 M, 21-month, first phase contract from the US Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL). A spacecraft data bus serves as the electrical interface between the spacecraft’s equipment and payloads.
“The innovative program will redefine spacecraft of the future,” said John Brock, Director of Mission Technology Futures for Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems. “Wireless technology will allow us to build faster, lower cost and lighter weight spacecraft by reducing the extensive touch labor, risks and complexities associated with integrating heavy, copper wire harnesses.” Under the contract, Northrop Grumman will develop a wireless data bus interface that enhances AFRL’s innovative electronics architecture for spacecraft called Space Plug-n-Play Avionics or SPA. These electronics have modern features of automatic device recognition and fault detection, much like commercial computer interfaces, to enable addition and removal of equipment without any software or database changes.
The development challenge is to create hardware elements for managing messages and directing communication traffic in an RF-rich micro-environment with hundreds of wireless devices. The initial phase will conclude with a wireless standard, such as Bluetooth, and will establish protocols, design implementation guidelines, and address spacecraft unique features such as security, reliability and electromagnetic emissions management.
Called SPA—Wireless, the interface communication system will upgrade commercial wireless technology for internal spacecraft use. Upgraded space wireless devices will allow new capabilities for spacecraft to:
- Locate and track parts through assembly, integration and rework;
- Detect when tools and assembly aids are inside the spacecraft;
- Automatically assess the connectivity health of a delivered component; and
- Ease reconfiguration and self-examination using commercial off-the-shelf wireless equipment.
“Many functions in a spacecraft that currently need a wire harness are used only once, or only intermittently over the life of a satellite,” Brock explained, adding that the company is continuously exploring the use of new technologies to reduce the cost of spacecraft. “These functions, such as deployment limit switches, temperature measurements, and status switches are excellent candidates for wireless.”