Bradford Tousley, director of the tactical technology office at DARPA, discusses satellite servicing at a Washington Space Business Roundtable lunch May 9, 2017. Credit: SpaceNews

WASHINGTON — The development of satellite servicing is an opportunity for the government to develop close partnerships with industry that let the commercial sector develop experimental technology rather than try to adhere to strict Pentagon guidelines, a top research official said.

One of the best things the Defense Department can do “with a robust commercial space base,” is to figure out “how we can work together on things to meet challenges,” said Bradford Tousley, director of the tactical technology office at DARPA, said at a May 9 Washington Space Business Roundtable lunch.

DARPA is currently working with Space Systems Loral under the Robotic Servicing of Geosynchronous Satellites (RSGS) program to develop and launch a robotic spacecraft capable of repairing and refueling satellites, or even adding payloads. Tousley said it’s an opportunity for the Defense Department to leverage commercial technology development, rather than create requirements that a private contractor must meet.

“In terms of robotic servicing for geostationary satellites, the reason that we chose a commercial partner as an approach is because we want to see the technical risks reduced for national security purposes, but it appeared that the most near-term application of this is going to be in the commercial sector,” he said. “So in this case it appeared that the best transition path as opposed to having a requirement, was to work with the private sector, the commercial industry.”

Engine investigation

The Air Force is also continuing to investigate reported problems with a liquid apogee engine used aboard several Defense Department satellites, according to Col. Sidney Conner, the deputy director of space programs for the assistant secretary of acquisition.

A supplier notified Lockheed Martin last September, that a component used in the engine had experienced an anomaly. The Air Force delayed the launch of the SBIRS 3 satellite from October to January while it investigated the issue.

However, no problems have been found and no future launches have been affected, Conner said.

“We currently have in place a joint Air Force-Lockheed Martin enterprise investigation team that’s look at a couple of scenarios where there was an anomaly,” he said. “We haven’t experienced any anomalies on our Air Force systems, and at this time there has not been any impact to the planned launches.”

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;...