Space Systems Loral and DARPA partner to service satellites in GEO

ARLINGTON, Va. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) officials partnered with Space Systems Loral (SSL) for the Agency's Robotic Servicing of Geosynchronous Satellites (RSGS) program with the aim to develop technologies that would enable cooperative inspection and servicing of satellites in geosynchronous orbit (GEO) and demonstrate those technologies on orbit. Depending on the outcome, the research effort could open the door towards lowering the risks and costs of operating in GEO.

Under the agreement, the two parties would share costs and responsibilities for the program, a first for in the -servicing domain. As such, the Agency’s selection of SSL and the pending agreement have been submitted for review by the Defense Department’s Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics.

With RSGS, DARPA plans to develop a robotic module, including hardware and software, and provide technical expertise and a Government-funded launch. SSL would provide a spacecraft and would be responsible for integrating the module onto it to create a robotic servicing vehicle (RSV) and the RSV onto the launch vehicle, as well as providing a mission operations center and staff.

Once the on-orbit demonstration of the RSV is complete and deemed successful, SSL would 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 property to SSL, the Government would obtain reduced-priced servicing of its satellites and access to commercial satellite servicing data throughout the operational life of the RSV, again at great taxpayer savings.

The capabilities that RSGS aims to make possible include:

  • High-resolution inspection
  • Correction of some types of mechanical anomalies, such as solar array and antenna deployment malfunctions
  • Assistance with relocation and other orbital maneuvers
  • Installation of attachable payloads, enabling upgrades or entirely new capabilities for existing assets
  • Refueling

“Servicing on orbit could provide significant cost savings compared to current practices and a major advantage to the security of both commercial and Government space assets,” says Gordon Roesler, DARPA’s program manager for RSGS. “The engineering challenges that need to be overcome to achieve this degree of facility at GEO are considerable, entailing significant technical risks but also carrying the potential for significant rewards. In addition to inspection and repair, RSGS promise a new era in which satellite upgrades and enhancements at GEO are no longer just a dream.”

Brad Tousley, Director of DARPA’s Tactical Technology Office, which will oversee RSGS, noted that the program is designed to 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.

In parallel with the RSGS partnership, DARPA also intends to provide the Government-developed space robotics technology to other interested U.S. space corporations. Qualified companies would be able to obtain and license the technology through cooperative research and development agreements.

Separately, to help ensure the long-term sustainability of RSGS and other future space operations—and provide the foundation for a new commercial repertoire of robust space-based capabilities—DARPA recently solicited research to develop and publish consensus operational safety standards for on-orbit rendezvous and proximity operations (RPO) and robotic servicing operations. The awardee would establish and manage the for Execution of Rendezvous and Servicing Operations (CONFERS), which would include both private sector and government technical experts.

Through CONFERS, DARPA aims to establish an industry/government forum composed of experts from throughout the space community. The forum would develop non-binding, consensus-derived technical and safety standards for on-orbit servicing operations, and help create definitions and expectations of responsible behavior in outer space. For more information, please visit the Federal Business Opportunities website or email HR001117S0006@darpa.mil.

“As the worldwide space industry expands and access to space becomes more routine, the need for norms of behavior—the ‘rules of the road’—will become increasingly important to preserve the ability of companies and government agencies to safely operate their space systems,” Tousley says. “With these two high-value DARPA programs, we hope to accelerate the development of norms of operation supporting a robust space servicing capability, which in turn could radically transform the way we build and operate satellites and, in time, enable future large-scale logistics and construction in the GEO environment.”

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