DARPA is set to launch the Radio Frequency Risk Reduction Deployment Demonstration (R3D2) in late February, on a mission to space qualify a new type of membrane reflect array antenna with military and commercial applications.

The antenna, made of a tissue-thin Kapton membrane, packs tightly for stowage during launch, then deploys to its full size of 2.25 m diameter once it reaches low Earth orbit (LEO). The antenna could enable missions that currently require large satellites, such as high data rate communications to remote users on the ground. MMA Design designed and built the antenna.

DARPA's R3D2 will monitor antenna deployment dynamics, survivability and RF characteristics of a membrane antenna in LEO. Northrop Grumman is the prime contractor and integrated the 150 kg satellite, Trident Systems designed and built R3D2’s software-defined radio and Blue Canyon Technologies provided the spacecraft bus. The development from satellite design to planned launch was accomplished in approximately 18 months.

A Rocket Lab USA Electron rocket from the company’s launch complex on the Mahia Peninsula of New Zealand will launch R3D2. A successful launch and demonstration of the antenna concept will also help prove the feasibility of the new commercial market for small, inexpensive launch vehicles and smaller, faster-to-launch, lower cost satellites, providing confidence for the Department of Defense (DoD) and commercial users.

“The DoD has prioritized rapid acquisition of small satellite and launch capabilities. By relying on commercial acquisition practices, DARPA streamlined the R3D2 mission from conception through launch services acquisition. This mission could help validate emerging concepts for a resilient sensor and data transport layer in LEO — a capability that does not exist today, but one which could revolutionize global communications by laying the groundwork for a space-based internet.” — Fred Kennedy, director of DARPA’s Tactical Technology Office