The Mission Robotic Vehicle, shown with DARPA's RSGS Robotic Payload, will be used to service satellites in orbit. Credit: Northrop Grumman

WASHINGTON — The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency selected Northrop Grumman as its commercial partner for the Robotic Servicing of Geosynchronous Satellites program, the company announced March 4.

The announcement comes on the heels of Northrop Grumman’s successful operation of its first satellite servicing Mission Extension Vehicle. The MEV-1 launched in October 2019 and last month docked in-orbit with an Intelsat communications satellite in an effort to keep the spacecraft in operation for an additional five years.

Under the agreement, DARPA will provide the robotics payload for a Mission Robotic Vehicle that will be used to service satellites in geosynchronous Earth orbit. The payload was developed by the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory. It consists of two dexterous robotic manipulator arms, along with several tools and sensors. Northrop Grumman’s SpaceLogistics division will provide the bus technologies it developed for the MEV.

The deal with Northrop Grumman caps a tumultuous three years for DARPA’s Robotic Servicing of Geosynchronous Satellites (RSGS) program. The agency in February 2017 selected SSL as its commercial partner over competitor Orbital ATK (later acquired by Northrop Grumman). After DARPA announced its selection of SSL, Orbital ATK unsuccessfully protested the decision in a federal court.

In January 2019, SSL’s parent company Maxar Technologies bowed out of the partnership for financial reasons.

DARPA decided to give it one more try and solicited new bids in May 2019. DARPA has a planned budget of $64.6 million for RSGS for fiscal year 2020.

Michael Leahy, director of DARPA’s Tactical Technology Office, said in a news release that the agency “remains committed to a commercial partnership for the execution of the RSGS mission.” He said DARPA “seeks to bring dexterous on-orbit servicing to spacecraft in geosynchronous orbit and to establish that inspection, repair, life extension, and improvement of our valuable GEO assets can be made possible and even routine.”

Tom Wilson, president of SpaceLogistics, said the robotics technology that will be used in the DARPA program “advances our vision to build a fleet of satellite servicing vehicles that provide customers with a variety of options to select the type of life-extension or in-orbit repairs they need.”

The company is developing life-extension services for satellites known as Mission Extension Pods. The pods augment the propulsion system of aging satellites and provide six years of life extension. The vehicle that will be developed with DARPA will be used to install these platforms on existing in-orbit commercial and government satellites to extend their service lives.

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...