Monday, April 29, 2019

DARPA Still Looking to Build Out US On-Orbit Satellite Servicing Capabilities

          By Chuck Black

Westminster CO based Maxar Technologies may have dropped out of the Robotic Servicing of Geosynchronous Satellites (RSGS) program, a public-private partnership with the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) in January 2019, but that doesn't mean that DARPA isn't looking to replace Maxar with new private sector partners able to help them develop this emerging technology.

As outlined in the April 19th, 2019 Next Gov post, "The Pentagon is Investing in Space Robots to Repair Satellites," the latest DARPA RSGS plans calls for lots and lots of space robots orbiting silently and prepared for action.

As outlined in the post, DARPA currently believes that: robots offer the best bet for inspecting and repairing high-altitude satellites, especially with the number of satellites set to skyrocket due to a budding Space Force and federal agencies and industry ramping up operations in outer space. 
Under the Robotic Servicing of Geosynchronous Satellites program, DARPA will partner with teams to build both robots that can maintain and upgrade satellites, as well as the spacecraft to move the bots through space. Once deployed, the tech would periodically check in on different satellites and service them as needed.
As outlined in the January 30th, 2019 post, "Why did Maxar Subsidiary SSL "Terminate" its Participation in the DARPA GEOsynchronous Satellite Servicing Program?," the original Maxar plan was to test a single robotic servicing vehicle (RSV) capable of repairing large GEOsynchronous orbiting satellites as required.

The current plan is focused around smaller but more numerous repair satellites built to different designs and capable of performing different repairs and refueling functions. According to the post:
The robotic repairmen would “both provide increased resilience for the current U.S. space infrastructure and be the first concrete step toward a transformed space architecture with revolutionary capabilities,” DARPA officials wrote in the solicitation. Ultimately, each system would be expected to perform “dozens of missions over several years.”
The program is scheduled to last roughly five years, and DARPA will host a "Proposers Day" on May 22nd for those interested in competing in the program.

While its dropped out of the DARPA program, a Maxar subsidiary, the Palo Alto CA based SSL, retains its role as prime contractor for the NASA RESTORE-L robotic satellite servicing mission. The RESTORE-L is a fixed price NASA contract worth between $600 - $700Mln US ($800 - $925Mln CDN) designed around an SSL 1300 satellite bus equipped to service orbiting satellites.

But SSL, as outlined most recently in the April 10th, 2019 Space News post, "Maxar’s path to growth runs through Worldview Legion" has had its workforce slashed and is in the process of being integrated into the larger Maxar corporate structure. After dropping out of the DARPA RSGS program it will be interesting to see if Maxar can retain its lead role in the RESOLVE-L program.

The first RESOLVE-L on-orbit satellite servicer is currently scheduled for launch sometime in 2020.
Chuck Black.

Chuck Black is the editor of the Commercial Space blog. 

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