DARPA working group begins addressing concerns related to proximity operations and satellite servicing

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PASADENA, California – A major challenge facing companies planning to perform on-orbit satellite servicing will be ensuring satellite operators do not view their activities as potential threats.

“How do we avoid any potential for misperception of what one spacecraft is doing when it approaches another spacecraft,” David Barnhart, director of the University of Southern California’s Space Engineering Research Center, asked May 23 at the Space Tech Expo here.

The Defense Advanced Projects Agency’s Consortium for Execution of Rendezvous and Servicing operations, called Confers, which held its first meeting May 21 in Marina del Rey, California, plans to address those concerns with transparency and confidence-building measures, Barnhart said.

Through Confers, DARPA is bringing together companies involved in satellite servicing to define best practices and develop voluntary consensus-driven standards for rendezvous and proximity operations as well as on-orbit servicing.

Specifically, Confers will delve into engineering and design criteria, operational issues and information sharing practices for proximity operations and satellite servicing. Data exchange, while essential for these activities, will pose challenges due to national export controls and corporate concerns about protecting proprietary information, said Barnhart, a former DARPA project manager.

Advanced Technology International is the Confers prime contractor. The Secure World Foundation directs outreach and engagement. USC’s Engineering Research Center is investigating existing standards and practices. The Space Infrastructure Foundation leads efforts to create new standards. Overall, Confers is aimed at providing “the foundation for a new commercial repertoire of robust space-based capability and a future in-space economy,” Barnhart said.

In its first year, Confers will focus on rendezvous and proximity operations. The group plans to work on satellite servicing the following year. Confers activities currently are supported by DARPA. In the future, member companies will cover the project’s costs, Barnhart said.