DARPA Eyes Satellite Servicing Demo with Industry Partner

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Credit: DARPA
Credit: DARPA

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is hoping to build on its body of work on space robotics and on-orbit proximity operations with a new satellite servicing mission in geostationary orbit that could take place as early as 2019, according to a Sept. 3 posting on the Federal Business Opportunities website.

DARPA has been experimenting with robotic satellite servicing technology for more than a decade. Currently the agency is pursuing a program dubbed Phoenix, which is aimed at salvaging and repurposing usable components from dead satellites, a concept some have likened to on-orbit surgery.

In a request for information, DARPA said it is eyeing a new program to advance the agency’s work in the field and, in the most optimistic scenario, serve as a catalyst for a commercial satellite servicing industry.

“DARPA is particularly interested in establishing a public-private partnership that would make cooperative robotic servicing available to both military and commercial [geostationary] satellite owners on a fee-for-service basis,” the agency said in a Sept. 3 press release. “The partnership would help develop near-term technical capabilities and significantly contribute toward the creation of a sustainable, commercially owned-and-operated space robotics enterprise.”

The robotic servicing craft would focus on satellites in geosynchronous orbit that are functioning but have experienced an anomaly and require close inspection, the notice said. “Understanding whether a spacecraft malfunction is due to a design flaw, an orbital debris impact, or other cause is of great concern to all spacecraft operators,” the request said.

The craft could then make repairs, such as helping with deployment of stuck components like solar arrays or antennas. It could also be used for orbit-changing maneuvers.

“Bringing this servicer into operation will create a satellite fleet servicing capability rather than the isolated, unserviced satellites of today,” the request reads. “Because the majority of satellites in [geostationary Earth orbit] are commercially owned, a promising approach to ensuring a servicing capability for U.S. Government assets is through a model that jointly engages commercial stakeholders.”

Some companies are already pursuing servicing concepts as a way to extend the lives of on-orbiting satellites, both government and commercial. But concepts have yet to gain any real traction in either marketplace.

One obstacle is the fact that very few satellites — NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope being the notable exception — are designed for on-orbit servicing.

DARPA said that based on its work over the years in on-orbit proximity and robotic operations, repairs can be made even to satellites that were not designed for on-orbit servicing.

The request specifically seeks industry input on the technical characteristics of satellite buses that could accommodate robotic arms and other diagnostic and servicing equipment. The spacecraft DARPA has in mind would include robotic arms capable of handling different tools, a suite of tools, control systems, cameras, lights and high-resolution imaging sensors, the request said. It would also be equipped to accept new tools and sensors through on-orbit resupply.

The solicitation also seeks ideas on ways to structure a government-commercial partnership in satellite servicing.

Responses are due in early November, the notice said.