SSL has won a $20 million contract from DARPA to build two robotic arms that could help repair or inspect damaged satellites. Credit: SSL.

SAN FRANCISCO —  The U.S. Defense Research Projects Agency plans to establish a consortium to discuss standards and practices for on-orbit satellite servicing as a corollary to Robotic Servicing of Geostationary Satellites (RSGS), an effort to develop robotic spacecraft to inspect, repair and move other satellites.

DARPA's Brad Tousley
DARPA’s Brad Tousley
DARPA’s Brad Tousley

“Our fear was that we would create a robotic servicing capability through RSGS and when our industry partner went to Lloyds of London for insurance, someone would say, ‘You have no authority to conduct that mission,’” said Brad Tousley, director of DARPA’s Tactical Technology Office.

Through the construction and operation of the International Space Station, the international community has established laws and regulations concerning government spacecraft conducting rendezvous and proximity operations with other government spacecraft as well as government spacecraft conducting rendezvous and proximity operations with commercial spacecraft.

“Right now there are no laws and regulations in place to cover commercial on commercial rendezvous and proximity operations,” Tousley said Aug. 16 at the Space Foundation’s Space Technology and Investment Forum here.

DARPA plans to help fill the void with the Consortium For Execution of Rendezvous and Servicing Operations (CONFERS).

“We think CONFERS is absolutely necessary for commercial operation and longevity because the insurance industry and others are going to be very, very demanding in terms of what is required for indemnification and approval of these processes,” Tousley said. “Otherwise, they won’t certify or insure it.”

Although DARPA is not a regulatory body, it can clear the way for future regulation by bringing together government and industry experts to discuss engineering practices and the technical details of conducting safe rendezvous and proximity operations, Tousley said.

Todd Master, DARPA’s CONFERS program manager, plans to work with federal government agencies including NASA, space companies and insurance firms. Master also will share DARPA’s plans with the United Nation’s Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space, Tousley said.

“This is not a typical DARPA program,” he added. “It is very small in terms of dollars but has huge collaborative value.”

Debra Werner is a correspondent for SpaceNews based in San Francisco. Debra earned a bachelor’s degree in communications from the University of California, Berkeley, and a master’s degree in Journalism from Northwestern University. She...