How DARPA's Experimental R3D2 Satellite Was Built Super Fast

Northrop Grumman built the R3D2 satellite, which tests a new kind of space antenna, for the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Project Agency (DARPA).
Northrop Grumman built the R3D2 satellite, which tests a new kind of space antenna, for the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Project Agency (DARPA). (Image credit: Northrop Grumman)

The builder for an innovative Defense Advanced Research Project Agency (DARPA) satellite says they "successfully demonstrated rapid spacecraft development" for the R3D2 mission, which launched flawlessly in late March.

Northrop Grumman completed the construction — from concept to spaceflight — in only 20 months, far shorter than the traditional timeline of years, Northrop Grumman representatives said in a statement. To reach that speed, the company said, the defense agency allowed for "greater levels of risk than is typical for an operational system," according to the statement; DARPA worked with Northrop Grumman to accept fewer requirements, reviews and deliverables during the construction than on a usual project.

"Our team's success with the R3D2 program is a strong proof of concept that the rapid development of future space capabilities is possible," Scott Stapp, the company's vice president of resiliency and rapid prototyping, said in the statement. "Taking thoughtful risks and eliminating bureaucracy allowed us to streamline our processes to achieve rapid timelines," he added.

The company plans to partner with the U.S. government, as well as companies large and small, to create fast-construction prototypes and demonstrations related to national-security missions. Northrop Grumman plans "to lead the cultural change necessary in the industry," Stapp added.

The R3D2 satellite is designed to test a new type of space antenna, DARPA officials said before launch on March 28. It includes a paper-thin "membrane reflectarray antenna" made of Kapton, which is supposed to extend as far as 7.3 feet (2.3 meters).

"R3D2 will monitor antenna deployment dynamics, survivability and radio frequency (RF) characteristics of a membrane antenna in low-Earth orbit," DARPA officials said in the statement. "The antenna could enable multiple missions that currently require large satellites, to include high data rate communications to disadvantaged users on the ground."

Another view of the R3D2 satellite before loading into the rocket. The satellite and rocket lifted off March 28. (Image credit: Northrop Grumman)

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Elizabeth Howell
Staff Writer, Spaceflight

Elizabeth Howell (she/her), Ph.D., is a staff writer in the spaceflight channel since 2022 covering diversity, education and gaming as well. She was contributing writer for for 10 years before joining full-time. Elizabeth's reporting includes multiple exclusives with the White House and Office of the Vice-President of the United States, an exclusive conversation with aspiring space tourist (and NSYNC bassist) Lance Bass, speaking several times with the International Space Station, witnessing five human spaceflight launches on two continents, flying parabolic, working inside a spacesuit, and participating in a simulated Mars mission. Her latest book, "Why Am I Taller?", is co-written with astronaut Dave Williams. Elizabeth holds a Ph.D. and M.Sc. in Space Studies from the University of North Dakota, a Bachelor of Journalism from Canada's Carleton University and a Bachelor of History from Canada's Athabasca University. Elizabeth is also a post-secondary instructor in communications and science at several institutions since 2015; her experience includes developing and teaching an astronomy course at Canada's Algonquin College (with Indigenous content as well) to more than 1,000 students since 2020. Elizabeth first got interested in space after watching the movie Apollo 13 in 1996, and still wants to be an astronaut someday. Mastodon: