Illustration of Scout Space Sparrow optical payload on a 12U Cubesat. (Scout Space)

WASHINGTON — Scout Space has been selected by the Pentagon’s far future agency to demonstrate software to support high-fidelity space domain awareness (SDA) sensors and autonomous on-orbit maneuvers, the company announced today.

Philip Hover-Smoot, CEO of the Virginia-based startup, told Breaking Defense that Scout’s two-phased effort ultimately will result in a simulation featuring tiny satellites autonomously swarming to perform an on-orbit inspection mission.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) tapped Scout Space to join its Bringing Classified Innovation to Defense and Government Systems (BRIDGES) Consortium.

The BRIDGES program, created in 2022, “aims to tap into innovation from companies that traditionally do not work with the DOD on classified research and development efforts. BRIDGES will connect innovators directly to the challenging problems that exist in the classified realm so they can help develop solutions.” BRIDGES research efforts stretch across multiple warfighting domains, including several specifically related to space tech.

Scout, for example, will be working under the BRIDGES research topic “Advancing Autonomous In-Space Threat Response for Space Superiority,” which was announced last September. “With this topic, the agency is looking for new methods and technologies that may provide warfighters with disruptive options for protecting and defending space systems across the competition continuum,” DARPA explained in its announcement. (The phrase “protect and defend” when used with regard to space operations is Pentagon jargon for defensive and offensive counterspace capabilities.)

First, Hover-Smoot explained, the company has identified a “handful” of specific software related to “core autonomy capabilities” such as “proximity warnings” and “sensor characterization capabilities” — “those things that allow you to use optical sensors to understand what another object in your vicinity on orbit is doing or possesses or might be trying to go do” — that it will refine specifically to underpin the needs of a satellite designed to maneuver independent of any human input.

Scout next will “transition to phase two,” which will be to create “a simulation of a customer-specific design reference mission, basically a scenario where we’ll take a set of zoom sensors, we’ll take some of these more matured autonomy software capabilities, and we’re going to gameplay,” he said. “And we’re going to gameplay with a unique platform hypothetical, and that is a small constellation of daughter craft nanosatellites, basically small SWap-C [size, weight and power, plus cost] platforms that would perform effectively a swarming inspection mission.”

The BRIDGES project is Scout’s first direct contract with DARPA, but the company’s SDA-related software and hardware — including its “plug and play” optical sensor packages designed as hosted payloads — already have caught the eye of Space Force officials.

“We have, I believe, six additional open government contracts with Space Force, and one with IARPA,” Hover-Smoot said.

For example, in August 2022, the tiny, 20-person company won two Small Business Technology Transfer grants from SpaceWERX, the service’s innovation hub, under its Orbital Prime program aimed at accelerating development of new dual-use tech for active debris removal.

That same month, Scout also announced it had been awarded a $44.5 million contract for the Tetra-5 mission through the Space Enterprise Consortium (SpEC) in collaboration with Hera Systems and Booz Allen Hamilton, and led by Orion Space Solutions. Tetra-5 is developing three microsatellites to demonstrate “multi-agent autonomous” rendezvous, proximity operations and docking, as well as on-orbit servicing.

Last August, the company won a $1.25 million Phase II Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) grant from AFWERX, Air Force Research Laboratory’s innovation hub, “focused on developing a flight software suite for critical space missions with autonomous sensor-driven multi-agent guidance and navigation capabilities.” And in January, Scout announced it been selected by AFWERX for another Phase II SBIR, worth $1.8 million, to deliver one of its “TacRS OWL” space domain awareness sensor systems. (TacRS stands for Tactically Responsive Space.)