Space Systems/Loral To Study on-orbit Assembly for DARPA

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WASHINGTON – The U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is studying technology that would enable the installation of antennas aboard satellites already on orbit, the latest of a series of exploratory efforts in satellite servicing and on-orbit assembly.

DARPA awarded satellite manufacturer Space Systems/Loral of Palo Alto, California, a five-month study contract valued at $250,000, said Jared Adams, an agency spokesman.

DARPA’s mission, generally speaking, is to pursue high-risk, high-payoff technology development projects for the Pentagon. The agency has spent over a decade developing on-orbit satellite-servicing and robotics technologies. Currently, DARPA has two such programs underway: Phoenix, ultimately aimed at salvaging useful components from old satellites, and the Robotic Servicing of Geostationary Satellites, intended to establish a robotics operation in geosynchronous orbit to perform servicing tasks.

SSL has long been one of DARPA’s Phoenix contractors, but Adams described the new effort, known as Dragonfly, as a separate stand-alone study of robotics in space.

Because of volume limitations inside rocket fairings, antennas aboard today’s telecommunications satellites typically must be launched in a stowed position, and on-orbit deployment of the hardware can be risky, said Steve Oldham, SSL’s vice president of strategic business development. Dragonfly technology is a potential way around those fairing limitations, he said.

“The Dragonfly program gives SSL the opportunity to demonstrate our advanced robotics capabilities with a mission that has the potential to transform the way satellites are built,” John Celli, president of SSL, said in the release.

SSL is known as a manufacturer of large commercial telecommunications satellites. But its parent company, MDA Corp. of Richmond, British Columbia, is a world leader in space robotics.

SSL officials said they believe Dragonfly technology could have military and commercial applications.

If DARPA were to pursue additional phases of the Dragonfly contract, an on-orbit demonstration could take place in the 2020s, Oldham said.