DARPA's Robotic Servicing of Geosynchronous Satellites (RSGS) program, which will demonstrate servicing technologies in GEO, features a payload developed by the U.S Naval Research Laboratory. Here, RSGS's Front-end Robotics Enabling Near-term Demonstration, or FREND, flight prototype robotic arm performs fully autonomous grapple testing. Credit: NRL

WASHINGTON – Orbital ATK sued the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency on Feb. 7 to prevent  a rival firm from getting a contract to collaborate on a government-funded mission to repair a satellite in orbit.

DARPA was poised to announce Feb. 6 that it had  picked Space Systems Loral (SSL) — a subsidiary of Canada’s MDA Corp. — to build a prototype satellite-servicing spacecraft under a $15 million contract.

Orbital ATK, which has already lined up at least one commercial customer for a satellite-servicing venture it unveiled last year, is suing to stop the award, arguing that DARPA “intends to give away this technology to a foreign-owned company for that company’s sole commercial use.”

DARPA’s Robotic Servicing of Geosynchronous Satellites (RSGS) mission — intended to create a robotic satellite repair and refueling platform — will “waste hundreds of millions of U.S. taxpayer dollars to develop robotic satellite servicing technology for which DARPA has admitted there is no present U.S. government need and that NASA and the U.S. private sector — specifically the plaintiffs — are already developing,” according to the complaint Virginia-based Orbital ATK filed Feb. 7 with the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia.

DARPA on Feb. 6 postponed a media teleconference it had scheduled for that day to announce its selection for the RSGS contract. Later that day, DARPA briefly posted a contract announcement, since removed, that said it had picked SSL for the project:

Space Systems/Loral LLC, Palo Alto, California, has been awarded a $15,000,000 firm-fixed-price other transaction for prototype agreement for the Robotic Servicing of Geosynchronous Satellites (RSGS) program. There are no options on the agreement. Fiscal 2016 research and development funds in the amount of $1,000,000 are being obligated at time of award. Work will be performed in Palo Alto, California, with an expected completion date of December 2021. This agreement was a competitive acquisition (program solicitation No. DARPA-PS-16-01).  Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, Arlington, Virginia, is the contracting activity (HR0011-17-9-0003).

Space Systems Loral declined to comment on the lawsuit, since the company is not named as a defendant and has not yet officially won the award from DARPA. In recent interviews, company officials emphasized the differences between its proposal, which included the ability to inspect, refuel, repair and add payloads to satellites, versus Orbital ATK’s first generation servicer, which only handles maneuvering of a satellite.

“Really,  it’s kind of a next-generation objective for DARPA to create a long-term, sustainable space architecture for satellite servicing,” said Steve Oldham, senior vice president of strategic business development of SSL, in an interview.

An Orbital ATK Mission Extension Vehicle (left) approaches a commercial communications satellite. Credit: Orbital ATK illustration.
An Orbital ATK Mission Extension Vehicle (left) approaches a commercial communications satellite. Credit: Orbital ATK illustration.

SSL specifically included refueling in its proposal to meet what it expects to be commercial demand for the proposed servicing system. “We think refueling for the commercial world in particular is a very clear value proposition and well understood,” Oldham said. “The resulting combined capability gives you a single satellite that can move around in orbit and service multiple different customers per year.”

Orbital ATK’s own program, led by its subsidiary Space Logistics LLC, is attempting to develop a mobile robotic spacecraft called the Mission Extension Vehicle, or MEV, that could operate in geosynchronous orbit with an initial focus on propelling satellites that are low on fuel.  Later iterations of the MEV would include advanced robotics capable of repairing and possiblly augmenting satellites.

Last April, Orbital ATK and Space Logistics announced that it had signed satellite fleet operator Intelsat as its first customer for the service.

Orbital ATK is asking the court to halt all DARPA’s work on the RSGS. Orbital ATK argues that DARPA is violating the 2010 National Space Policy, which directs government entities to “refrain from conducting United States government activities that preclude, discourage, or compete with U.S. commercial space activities.”

DARPA and Orbital ATK declined comment, citing the pending litigation.

Congressional Scrutiny

RSGS came under scrutiny two weeks ago, when four lawmakers sent letters to the Pentagon expressing concern that DARPA’s research was redundant to what Orbital ATK and NASA were developing. Orbital ATK claims that DARPA’s intent to give technology and a free launch collectively worth hundred of millions of dollars distorts the market when Orbital ATK already invested in a robotic servicing and life extension program, including buying a Proton Medium launch and contracting Intelsat for a five year mission.

U.S. Reps. Jim Bridenstine (R-Okla.), Rob Bishop (R-Utah) and Barbara Comstock (R-Va.) wrote DARPA Director Steven Walker urging him to “stop any further action on RSGS” until DARPA completes a review “to ensure its compliance with the 2010 national space policy.”

Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.) also sent a letter to Walker and Robert Work, the deputy secretary of defense, arguing that DARPA’s work duplicates NASA’s Restore-L mission.


On Feb. 3, Walker sent identical letters to Bridenstine, Bishop and Comstock, saying that commercial systems under development won’t be as capable as DARPA’s RSGS. Walker said DARPA conducted a review of RSGS with the Pentagon and concluded that “the program is consistent with the 2010 National Space Policy.”

The same day, Walker wrote to Reps. Derek Kilmer (D-Wash), Andy Biggs (R-Ariz), Donald Beyer (D-Va), Scott Peters (D-Calif.) and Pete Aguilar (D-Calif.) saying that RSGS was differen from NASA’s Restore-L program because Restore-L focuses on low Earth orbit, and will therefore rely extensively on ground control for operations.

“Due to the greater communications delay at GEO, RSGS will perform many of its missions autonomously,” Walker’s letter said.

The U.S. Naval Research Laboratory developed the robotics software for RSGS’ autonomous functions under DARPA funding. Walker said the algorithms will be available to all U.S. companies by means of technical agreements. He said RSGS will also be capable of more missions than Restore-L.

Space News Senior Staff Writer Jeff Foust contributed to this story.

Phillip Swarts is the military space reporter for SpaceNews. He previously covered space and advanced technology for Air Force Times, the Justice Department for The Washington Times, and investigative journalism for the Washington Guardian;...

Caleb Henry is a former SpaceNews staff writer covering satellites, telecom and launch. He previously worked for Via Satellite and NewSpace Global.He earned a bachelor’s degree in political science along with a minor in astronomy from...