DARPA hits snag in GEO satellite service plan – Network World

Posted: February 10, 2017 at 8:44 am

Layer 8 is written by Michael Cooney, an online news editor with Network World.

DARPA is going to have to contend with an Earth-bound problem if it is to get its plan to service satellites in geosynchronous orbit into space.

The agency this week said it had picked Space Systems Loral (SSL) as its commercial partner to develop technologies under its Robotic Servicing of Geosynchronous Satellites (RSGS) program that would enable cooperative inspection and servicing of satellites in geosynchronous orbit (GEO), more than 20,000 miles above the Earth, and demonstrate those technologies on orbit.

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But SSL competitor Orbital ATF promptly filed a lawsuit looking to stop the award.

Inside Defense.com reported that according to the complaintfiled in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, Orbital ATK is seeking a permanent injunction that would prohibit further action on DARPA’s Robotic Servicing of Geospatial Satellites program as well as a judgment that the project violates the National Space Policy and the Administrative Procedure Act. Orbital ATK says in its lawsuit that it has long worked on in-space satellite servicing. It is developing the Mission Extension Vehicle, which it describes as a “satellite life extension service for GEO satellites.

According to the Orbital website the MEV docks with customers existing satellites providing the propulsion and attitude control needed to extend their lives. The MEV is capable of docking with virtually all-geosynchronous satellites with minimal interruption to operations. It will let satellite operators significantly extend satellite mission life, activate new markets, drive asset value and protect their franchises. Orbital subsidiary Space Logistics LLC delivers life extension services that are flexible, scalable, capital-efficient and low-risk.

In a release, today (Feb. 9) DARPA said RSGS will demonstrate a suite of capabilities critical to national security and not currently available or anticipated to be offered commercially in the near term, including ultra-close inspection, repair of mechanical anomalies, and installation of technical packages on the exterior of US satellites, all of which require highly dexterous robotic arms. DARPA has already designed and created the required robotic arms.

Under the RSGS program, a DARPA-developed modular toolkit (the robotic payload), including hardware and software, would be joined to a privately developed spacecraft to create a commercially operated robotic servicing vehicle that could make house calls in space, DARPA stated.

DARPA said its role will be to contribute the robotics technology, expertise, and a government-provided launch while SSL would contribute the satellite to carry the robotic payload, integration of the payload onto it and the RSV to the launch vehicle, and the mission operations center and staff.

Since there are roughly four times as many commercial satellites in GEO as Government satellites, DARPA elected to find a commercial partner capable of servicing both in order to lower the cost of servicing to the Government and commercial entities and collect a broader range of research data. This partnership approach will enable the fastest deployment of RSGS capability, DARPA wrote.

DARPA continued: After a successful on-orbit demonstration of the robotic servicing vehicle, SSL would own and operate the vehicle and make cooperative servicing available to both military and commercial GEO satellite owners on a fee-for-service basis. In exchange for providing government property to SSL, the government will obtain reduced priced servicing of its satellites and access to commercial satellite servicing data throughout the operational life of the RSV.

Government-developed RSGS technologies would not become the exclusive property of DARPAs commercial partner but would be shared with other qualified and interested U.S. space companies. Qualified companies would be able to obtain and license the technology through cooperative research and development agreements.

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In December, DARPA proposed consortium of industry players that will research, develop, and publish standards for safe commercial robotic servicing operations in Earths orbit. Specifically, DARPA said it wants to create the Consortium for Execution of Rendezvous and Servicing Operations or CONFERS that looks to establish a forum that would use best practices from government and industry to research, develop and publish non-binding, consensus-derived technical and safety standards for on-orbit servicing operations. In doing so, the program would provide a clear technical basis for definitions and expectations of responsible behavior in outer space. In the end the ultimate goal is to provide the technical foundation to shape safe and responsible commercial space operations to preserve the safety of the global commons of space, DARPA stated.

Recent technological advances have made the longstanding dream of on-orbit robotic servicing of satellites a near-term possibility. The potential advantages of that unprecedented capability are enormous. Instead of designing their satellites to accommodate the harsh reality that, once launched, their investments could never be repaired or upgraded, satellite owners could use robotic vehicles to physically inspect, assist, and modify their on-orbit assets. That could significantly lower construction and deployment costs while dramatically extending satellite utility, resilience, and reliability, DARPA stated. But these efforts all face a major roadblock: the lack of clear, widely accepted technical and safety standards for responsible performance of on-orbit activities involving commercial satellites, including rendezvous and proximity operations that dont involve physical contact with satellites and robotic servicing operations that would. Without these standards, the long-term sustainability of outer space operations is potentially at risk.

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DARPA hits snag in GEO satellite service plan – Network World

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