Servicing Satellites in Space

DARPA completes milestone in Robotic Servicing of Geosynchronous Satellites program


The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is one step closer to launching a military-grade robot to service and repair satellites in geosynchronous orbit.

A preliminary design review (PDR) last month determined the agency’s Robotic Servicing of Geosynchronous Satellites (RSGS) program is on schedule to complete its first multi-year mission to service a minimum of 20 commercial and government spacecraft on orbit. So far, two robotic arms that will perform surgical inspection and repair on satellite exteriors are in production and expected to be delivered next year. Mission partner Space Systems Loral will provide the “spacecraft bus” vehicle, which will undergo a systems requirements review in October. Launch of the operational robot onboard the SSL spacecraft is scheduled for March 2021. [Editor’s Note: Space News reported August 29 the RSGS program may be at risk to lose funding to meet this deadline.] 

During the PDR, the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory, DARPA’s contracted developer of the robotic payload, presented test plans and demonstrated compliance with agency standards and compatibility with the SSL vehicle. Now, the agency will advance to an on-orbit checkout and demonstration phase. If successful, SSL will take operational control of the spacecraft and begin offering cooperative satellite servicing to military and commercial customers on a fee-for-service basis.

Such an operation would extend the working lives of costly weather, surveillance, communications, and other satellites by increasing their resilience against attacks, malfunctions, or on-orbit collisions. And by eliminating the need to load satellites with backup systems and a lifetime of fuel, on-orbit service robots could indirectly lower the costs associated with developing and launching objects into space. They could even open the door for new space designs, such as total on-orbit assembly.

NASA is nursing a similar program called Restore-L, which aims to launch a robotic spacecraft with dexterous arms in 2020. In the commercial sector, Orbital ATK subsidiary SpaceLogistics plans to offer customers a Mission Extension Vehicle (MEV), which the company sees as a “baby step” toward satellite servicing, by 2019.

While on-orbit robotics represent revolutionary advancements for satellite operators and remote sensing firms, they also pose a potential risk as weapons systems in the hands of adversaries. A Motherboard article investigates the implications of service robots as saboteurs equipped with lasers, malware, or explosives. In addition to the U.S., China and Russia have developed early orbital inspection vehicles, continuing the tense race to lead in the space domain.

Photo Credit: DARPA

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