SSL aims to parlay NASA, DARPA work into viable in-orbit repair business

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This article originally appeared in the June 4, 2018 issue of SpaceNews magazine.

Space Systems Loral’s booth at the Space Tech Expo in Pasadena, California, was flanked by robotic arms: a sturdy one for grasping geostationary satellites and a slender one for assembling spacecraft in orbit.

The two arms illustrate the breadth of the company’s servicing work. SSL, a Maxar Technologies company, is working with NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center to refuel the Landsat 7 Earth-observation satellite, investing with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency in a mobile service station for geostationary orbit, focusing on semi-autonomous satellite assembly through a partnership with NASA called Dragonfly and joining NanoRacks in a campaign to turn a spent rocket stage into an orbiting outpost.

SSL is investing in on-orbit servicing because “mission extension is a game changer,” Michael Gabor, advanced programs director for SSL Government Systems, said at the Space Tech Expo in late May. “It’s going to revolutionize how we treat the space domain.”

Robotic Servicing of Geosynchronous Satellites, scheduled to launch in 2021, is first on SSL’s agenda. The firm is investing with DARPA to develop a vehicle to closely inspect satellites in geostationary orbit, refuel them, repair mechanical problems and install new payloads. RSGS is aimed at creating an ongoing servicing business.

“DARPA and NASA have done [servicing] demonstrations in the past but to get traction for a sustained business is a big deal,” said Al Tadros, SSL vice president for space infrastructure and civil space. “They want that so they can buy services rather than owning and operating a servicing satellite.”

SSL is setting up the operations center for its geostationary servicing business, talking with prospective customers and preparing to serve its first client: fleet operator SES. SES has not revealed the satellite it plans to refuel but the company is enthusiastic about the prospect of on-orbit refueling, said Bryan Benedict, SES Government Solutions senior director for innovation and satellite programs. “Sometimes we are not sure where our business plans are going,” Benedict said at the Space Tech Expo. “Sometimes we don’t have the capital to do all the replacements in the timeframe we want.”

SSL's NASA-sponsored Dragonfly project aims to demonstrate how a satellite equipped with a robotic arm could assemble itself in orbit. Credit: SSL
SSL’s NASA-sponsored Dragonfly project aims to demonstrate how a satellite equipped with a robotic arm could assemble itself in orbit. Credit: SSL

SSL has not announced other refueling contracts but Tadros said the market looks strong with about 300 commercial and 80 government satellites in geostationary orbit.

“We build satellites for geostationary orbit all the time and have customers there,” Tadros said. “Hence we have an understanding of the market and why people would want servicing.”

Next up is Restore-L, the NASA mission set for launch in 2022 to refuel the 19-year-old Landsat 7. Unlike RSGS, Restore-L will be government owned and operated, meaning NASA will decide how to use the satellite servicing vehicle once it completes the Landsat 7 mission.

SSL is supplying Restore-L’s bus, based on the firm’s SSL 1300 platform, in addition to payload components and the vehicle’s robotic arm, which will use various tools to remove thermal blankets, cut tie wires and unscrew caps during the refueling exercise.

“It will have all the tools you would expect a technician to have in a satellite manufacturing facility,” Tadros said.

Dragonfly is a longer-term effort. It’s part of NASA’s Tipping Point program to encourage development of commercial technologies the space agency plans to use for future missions. SSL is investing in Dragonfly alongside NASA’s Space Technologies Mission Directorate to demonstrate how a satellite equipped with a robotic arm could assemble itself in orbit.

Several large antenna reflectors, for example, could be stacked in a launch vehicle fairing like Pringles potato chips. Once in orbit, the satellite’s robotic arm could unpack the antennas and install them on the spacecraft.

“If we have a robotic arm, we can build out our satellite on orbit and reconfigure it without a servicing vehicle, which is a very interesting idea,” Tadros said. “Now you can optimize the packing of satellites in a fairing to demonstrate a bigger reflector.”

SSL plans to contribute the same robotic arm technology to Independence-1, an effort led by NanoRack’s and supported through NASA’s Next Space Technologies for Exploration Partnerships, or NextSTEP, to turn a spent Centaur rocket upper stage into a pressurized orbiting outpost.

The symmetrical robotic arm has a central hinge and grippers on each end to clasp tools or grapple fixtures. It is designed to move around a large spacecraft from grapple fixture to grapple fixture like an inchworm and use tools to cut an entryway in the Centaur, build compartments and move equipment, Tadros said.

All this work is likely to lead to satellites designed for on-orbit servicing. “We envision some of our future satellites to be heading in that direction,” Tadros said. If satellites were designed with a modular architecture, servicing vehicles could replace failed components and upgrade payloads to keep up with technological advances, he added.