DARPA's Robotic Servicing of Geosynchronous Satellites (RSGS) program, features a payload developed by the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory. Credit: NRL

WASHINGTON — The launch of a robotic servicing spacecraft developed by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and satellite manufacturer SSL is at risk of being delayed amid congressional concerns that the Air Force is requesting funds to launch this mission earlier than needed.

Senate appropriators cut $209 million from the Air Force launch budget for fiscal year 2019 on grounds that the payload — DARPA’s Robotic Servicing of Geosynchronous Satellites, or RSGS — will not be ready to fly to orbit as projected, by spring 2021. The Air Force said it would need to buy the launch during fiscal year 2019 to ensure RSGS can meet the schedule.

In a statement to SpaceNews, RSGS Program Manager Joe Parrish said DARPA is “working closely with the Air Force to answer any questions House and Senate appropriators may have as Congress goes forward in its budget deliberations.”

Appropriations raised concerns about the schedule of the mission known as “Space Test Program-4” and justified the funding cut as “early to need.” Parrish said the RSGS vehicle is “on track for launch in 2021.”

The Senate on Thursday passed a “minibus” appropriations bill for fiscal year 2019 that included funding for the military. The Trump administration pushed back on the proposed cuts to the launch account. In a statement, the White House said RSGS is an “innovative public-private partnership to demonstrate on-orbit repair, refueling and other servicing capabilities. This satellite will be available for launch in spring 2021, which requires the procurement of its launch vehicle in FY2019. Failure to do so would lead to significantly increased program costs for satellite storage and program support, and puts at risk substantial private investment and future public-private partnerships.”

The administration’s strong objection speaks to the high stakes involved in RSGS. It’s not like a traditional government satellite program because much of the risk is carried by a private company. DARPA’s partner SSL, a division of Maxar Technologies, is providing the satellite bus, the operations center and the ground-based communications network.

“It’s a huge investment by a private company,” said former RSGS program manager Gordon Roesler, who recently retired from government and is now an industry consultant.

DARPA and SSL are working under a so-called “other transactions agreement” where the government and the contractor share program costs. Companies sign up for OTAs when they believe the program will lead to long-term business opportunities that will justify the investment. If somehow the RSGS program didn’t pan out as planned, it could deter future partnerships.

Roesler played a central role in structuring the deal with SSL in 2017. “We did that for several reasons,” he told SpaceNews. “We knew the spacecraft had to be commercial if it was going to service commercial satellites in geosynchronous Earth orbit.” Under the OTA agreement, the company needed to make sure there was a “business case” and agree to make a significant investment. In return, DARPA committed to providing the robotics package to be integrated with the satellite. “Between upgrades, inspections, repairs, refueling, they saw a significant upside to the investment,” he said. The U.S. Naval Research Laboratory is building the robotic payload under contract to DARPA.

DARPA announced this week that SSL is will be ready for a “systems requirements review for the spacecraft bus in October 2018.” A July design review showed that the robotic payload design would be able to “fulfill a multi-year mission to service at least 20 commercial and government spacecraft in geosynchronous orbit,” the agency said in a news release.

Over the past couple of years, other firms such as Northrop Grumman Innovation Systems and Effective Space have jumped into the satellite servicing business. Analysts have estimated a future market of about $3 billion over the coming decade.

Roesler said the government also is motivated to get robotic servicing vehicles on orbit to help address some of its own needs. “High precision robotics allows you to do more than just life extension,” he said. One of the goals is to support the military’s billion-dollar satellites that may experience problems after launch. “If one of the solar panels didn’t come out or one of the antennas didn’t deploy, that’s a huge loss and it would take years to recover,” said Roesler. “If a robotic spacecraft can assist by shaking, pushing, untangling with high-dexterity arms it could restore the satellite to full operational capability.”

Even if the government had to pay the contractor a big fee for that service, it’s a “win-win,” said Roesler. “The taxpayer doesn’t have to fund a replacement satellite.”

There are other applications for RSGS that have yet to be examined, he said.  As the United States seeks ways to defend satellites from hostile attacks, RSGS could be one of the solutions. The robotic arms could be used to install sensor modules on the outside of any satellite, allowing the satellite to see objects in its vicinity and report back to Earth. “That’s the type of local situational awareness that we don’t have right now, and provides a level of protection at least against one type of threat,” Roesler said. Other modules could be attached to satellites to collect weather data as well, he added. “There are both commercial and national security applications.”

Roesler said he could not comment on the launch budget issues but said he hopes the impasse gets resolved. “I understand disagreements about schedules and readiness. Things do break in all space programs.” But at a time when the U.S. government is worried about threats in space, all parties should be motivated to keep RSGS on track, he said. “RSGS as early as 2021 will be up there to bring propellant, situational awareness sensors, it can help upgrade U.S. satellites. Everyone should be working to try to make that happen.”

Sandra Erwin writes about military space programs, policy, technology and the industry that supports this sector. She has covered the military, the Pentagon, Congress and the defense industry for nearly two decades as editor of NDIA’s National Defense...