DARPA Selects Contractors for Phoenix Satellite Servicing Program

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ARLINGTON, Va. — The U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has chosen a broad base of contractors, ranging from aerospace and telecommunications heavyweights to niche startups, to support the next phase of its satellite service and salvage project, Phoenix.

The Phoenix program’s first space-based technology demonstration mission is to fly in 2015 or 2016. In this demo, a free-roaming servicing spacecraft — built on a spacecraft bus provided by Beltsville, Md.-based ATK Aerospace Group and using a robotic arm developed by MDA Information Systems of Pasadena, Calif. — will try to sever the apertures and antennas of decommissioned commercial satellites and attach them to tiny satellites DARPA calls “satlets,” effectively creating new sensing and communications spacecraft.

The ATK bus already has been built. Neither DARPA nor ATK would say how much the bus, or the modifications it needs, will cost. It is to be delivered to DARPA in October 2014. According to public budget documents, DARPA spent about $60 million from 2006 to 2011 developing the MDA-built arm under a program called Front-end Robotics Enabling Near-term Demonstration (FREND). The Naval Research Laboratory will procure both the bus and the arm for DARPA, according to notices posted online. MDA has delivered one robotic arm to DARPA for the FREND program, but the agency wants to order another that is “totally identical and interoperable with the existing arm built by MDA,” according to the online procurement note.

Not yet posted online, with the exception of a $2.9 million award announced June 20 for a year-old company called NovaWurks Inc. of Los Alamitos, Calif., are the rest of the awards DARPA is making under a $36 million Broad Agency Announcement released in December. That solicitation, which closed in February, detailed the additional hardware and studies needed to get the Phoenix spacecraft ready for its mid-decade satellite salvaging demonstration.

David Barnhart, DARPA program manager for Phoenix, identified some of the contractors and the work they will do in a June 27 email to Space News. He would not say what DARPA is paying each contractor, but did say that the following companies got work:

  • Altius Space Machines, a 2-year-old startup from Louisville, Colo., will build an extendable boom for the Phoenix spacecraft.
  • Intelsat General Corp. of Washington will study interfaces for transporting small satellites needed for the demo as hosted payloads aboard larger commercial satellites.
  • NovaWurks will build a Hyper-Integrated Satlet System.
  • NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., will provide an adhesive called “Gecko-Gripper.”
  • Space Systems/Loral of Palo Alto, Calif., will study ways to transport small satellites used in the Phoenix demo to geostationary orbit aboard commercial communications satellites and then eject the hosted payloads so that the Phoenix spacecraft can collect them for use in its salvaging operations.

DARPA hosted kickoff meetings with these and other newly signed Phoenix contractors June 27 through June 29, according to one participant. These private discussions followed the agency’s Fostering Satellite Servicing Conference held here at DARPA headquarters June 26.

DARPA is also looking for decommissioned or abandoned satellites to use as guinea pigs for early on-orbit Phoenix experiments. A request for information from DARPA to satellite operators went out June 19. Responses are due July 19.

Phoenix evolved from a DARPA concept that would have placed human repair crews in geostationary orbit as part of a concept known in budget documents as Manned Geostationary Earth Orbit Servicing. For Phoenix, DARPA plans to keep human operators on the ground.

Since the program began in 2011, DARPA has spent $16.5 million on Phoenix. The agency requested another $28 million for 2013 to ramp up work on the mission. Most of the hardware construction for the mission is set to begin next year, according to DARPA’s December announcement.

 

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