In the past, satellites were designed as a large, single support platform, to which a large number of instruments (payloads) were mounted. Although this traditional method allows us to collect large amounts of data, it is also very expensive in terms of design, construction, and implementation. 

In response to the increasing need for a low cost, versatile science and communications platform, the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) initiated a program called TechSat21.  TechSat21 will demonstrate the feasibility of using distributed micro-satellite systems to do the work of a large, dedicated satellite platform. 

Research connected with this low cost nanosatellite technology is ideally suited for the university environment.  Therefore, in early 1998 the Air Force Office of Scientific Research (AFOSR) and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) published a request-for-proposal (RFP) that sought ten universities to take part in what is now called the University Nanosatellite Program. The goal of this two-year program is to design, build, and fly nanosatellites.

The University of Washington (along with several other universities) successfully proposed to participate in this program, which is funded primarily by the AFOSR and DARPA. NASA has since joined the program and is providing additional funding and hardware assistance to universities that are attempting formation flight experiments. 

Currently, the UW is partnered with Utah State University (USU) and Virginia Polytechnic Institute (VPI) to form a cluster of three nanosatellites called the Ionospheric Observation Nanosatellite Formation (ION-F). The name ION-F also denotes the two operational goals of the cluster: ionosphere science measurement and formation flight.

Several mission requirements were specified by the original RFP. These requirements include:

  • The overall mass of the nanosatellite shall not exceed 10 kg.
  • The lifetime of the nanosatellite shall be no less than one month, and shall have a design lifetime of four months.
  • The nanosatellite teams (such as UW-USU-VPI) shall demonstrate a formation flying capability.