SSL cancels DARPA satellite servicer agreement

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WASHINGTON — Maxar Technologies’ Space Systems Loral division terminated an agreement to build DARPA’s Robotic Servicing of Geosynchronous Satellites spacecraft Jan. 30, leading to a potential recompete of the program.

Maxar said it also canceled a contract with Space Infrastructure Services, a company it created that would have commercialized the RSGS servicer after a DARPA demonstration, starting with an in-orbit refueling mission for fleet operator SES. Both were awarded in 2017.

Maxar said it backed out the servicer program, which would have been able to refuel and repair satellites in space, in order to “focus its resources on ensuring optimal returns when weighed against other capital priorities, such as WorldView Legion.”

WorldView Legion is a constellation of Earth observation satellites SSL is building for Maxar’s DigitalGlobe division. Three weeks ago, DigitalGlobe reported that its newest satellite, WorldView-4, failed in orbit, making replacement satellites more urgent.

Maxar hasn’t publicly stated the size of the WorldView Legion constellation, but a September filing with the U.S. Federal Communications Commission requested authorization for 12 such satellites.

The cancellations come amid an ongoing divestment of SSL’s geostationary satellite manufacturing business, which has weighed down Maxar’s financial performance due to a protracted slump in commercial orders.  

DARPA, through the Other Transaction Agreement, tasked SSL with providing the spacecraft bus for RSGS, integrating the servicer with a launch vehicle, and providing operations staff for the lifetime of the mission. The agency planned to provide a free launch — originally set for 2021 — and the robotic payload.

“While disappointed that we are unable to find an economically viable path to support RSGS and meet our return criteria, we are dedicated to partnering with the U.S. government to realize the full potential of in-space robotic servicing of spacecraft, as well as assembly and manufacturing in space,” Richard White, president of SSL Government Systems, said in a statement. “

White said SSL would continue its involvement in NASA’s Restore-L mission, which unlike RSGS will be NASA owned and operated. NASA plans to use Restore-L, based on the SSL-1300 bus, to refuel the almost 20-year-old Landsat-7 satellite.

DARPA, in a statement, said it and the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory had made “significant progress” on the robotic payload for RSGS, including starting production of flight versions of the robotic manipulator arms.

“Over the next few months, DARPA will be evaluating multiple options for the RSGS program going forward, including a potential recompetition or restructure of the program,” DARPA said. “We continue to evaluate government and commercial interest in on-orbit servicing for satellite inspection, life extension, relocation, anomaly resolution, and upgrade of individual subsystems.”

DARPA said it expects the RSGS robotic payload will be adaptable to other spacecraft buses.