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CHIPS Articles: DARPA Selects SSL as Commercial Partner for Revolutionary Goal of Servicing Satellites in GEO

DARPA Selects SSL as Commercial Partner for Revolutionary Goal of Servicing Satellites in GEO
Public-private partnership to develop on-orbit robotic servicer that would radically lower the risk and cost of space operations
By DARPA News - February 13, 2017
In an important step toward a new era of advanced, cost-effective robotic capabilities in space, DARPA today announced that it has selected Space Systems Loral (SSL), based in Palo Alto, CA, as its commercial partner for the Agency’s Robotic Servicing of Geosynchronous Satellites (RSGS) program. DARPA and SSL seek to develop technologies that would enable cooperative inspection and servicing of satellites in geosynchronous orbit (GEO), more than 20,000 miles above the Earth, and demonstrate those technologies on orbit. If successful, this research and demonstration effort would open the door to radically lowering the risks and costs of operating in GEO, a harsh and difficult-to-access domain that is critically important for both military and civilian space assets.

Under an agreement drafted jointly by DARPA and SSL, the two entities would share costs and responsibilities for the program. While such public-private partnerships have become common in several domains of research and development — saving taxpayer dollars by requiring commercial partners to invest significantly in projects rather than simply receive government funding — the RSGS public-private effort would be a first for DARPA in the space-servicing domain. As such, the Agency’s selection of SSL and the pending agreement have been submitted for review by the Defense Department’s Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics.

With RSGS, DARPA plans to develop a robotic module, including hardware and software, and provide technical expertise and a Government-funded launch. SSL would provide a spacecraft and would be responsible for integrating the module onto it to create a robotic servicing vehicle (RSV) and the RSV onto the launch vehicle, as well as providing a mission operations center and staff.

After a successful on-orbit demonstration of the RSV, SSL would operate the vehicle and make cooperative servicing available to both military and commercial GEO satellite owners on a fee-for-service basis. In exchange for providing property to SSL, the Government would obtain reduced-priced servicing of its satellites and access to commercial satellite servicing data throughout the operational life of the RSV, again at great taxpayer savings. The capabilities that RSGS aims to make possible include:

--High-resolution inspection

--Correction of some types of mechanical anomalies, such as solar array and antenna deployment malfunctions

--Assistance with relocation and other orbital maneuvers

--Installation of attachable payloads, enabling upgrades or entirely new capabilities for existing assets

--Refueling

“Servicing on orbit could provide significant cost savings compared to current practices and a major advantage to the security of both commercial and Government space assets,” said Gordon Roesler, DARPA’s program manager for RSGS. “The engineering challenges that need to be overcome to achieve this degree of facility at GEO are considerable, entailing significant technical risks but also carrying the potential for significant rewards. In addition to inspection and repair, RSGS robotics promise a new era in which satellite upgrades and enhancements at GEO are no longer just a dream.”

Brad Tousley, Director of DARPA’s Tactical Technology Office, which will oversee RSGS, noted that the program is designed to demonstrate a suite of capabilities critical to national security and not currently available or anticipated to be offered commercially in the near term, including ultra-close inspection, repair of mechanical anomalies, and installation of technical packages on the exterior of US satellites, all of which require highly dexterous robotic arms. DARPA has already designed and created the required robotic arms.

In parallel with the RSGS partnership, DARPA also intends to provide the Government-developed space robotics technology to other interested U.S. space corporations. Qualified companies would be able to obtain and license the technology through cooperative research and development agreements.

Separately, to help ensure the long-term sustainability of RSGS and other future space operations — and provide the foundation for a new commercial repertoire of robust space-based capabilities — DARPA recently solicited research to develop and publish consensus operational safety standards for on-orbit rendezvous and proximity operations (RPO) and robotic servicing operations. The awardee would establish and manage the Consortium for Execution of Rendezvous and Servicing Operations (CONFERS), which would include both private sector and government technical experts.

Through CONFERS, DARPA aims to establish an industry/government forum composed of experts from throughout the space community. The forum would develop non-binding, consensus-derived technical and safety standards for on-orbit servicing operations, and help create definitions and expectations of responsible behavior in outer space. For more information, please visit the Federal Business Opportunities website (http://go.usa.gov/x9Qxd) or email HR001117S0006@darpa.mil.

“As the worldwide space industry expands and access to space becomes more routine, the need for norms of behavior — the ‘rules of the road’ — will become increasingly important to preserve the ability of companies and government agencies to safely operate their space systems,” Tousley said. “With these two high-value DARPA programs, we hope to accelerate the development of norms of operation supporting a robust space servicing capability, which in turn could radically transform the way we build and operate satellites and, in time, enable future large-scale logistics and construction in the GEO environment.”

Media with inquiries should contact DARPA Public Affairs at outreach@darpa.mil.

Fact Sheet: DARPA Robotic Servicing of Geosynchronous Satellites (RSGS) Program

Overview

National security increasingly demands a high degree of flexibility on orbit, including an ability to repair and upgrade satellites in geosynchronous orbit (GEO). The technical challenges of performing such functions in GEO are significant, but success could substantially revolutionize military and commercial space operations, lower satellite construction and deployment costs, and improve satellite lifespan, resilience, and reliability — precisely the kind of high risk/high reward opportunity that DARPA was created to pursue. RSGS is a research and demonstration effort that aims to speed the arrival of capabilities such as high-resolution inspection; correction of otherwise mission-ending mechanical anomalies such as solar array and antenna deployment malfunctions; assistance with relocation and other orbital maneuvers; and installation of attachable payloads, enabling upgrades to existing assets.

strong>Background

With the exception of the International Space Station, the former Russian Mir Space Station, and a handful of astronaut-led activities during the Space Shuttle era (most notably the Hubble Space Telescope missions) — all of which were in low-Earth orbit and not GEO, a much higher and more challenging orbit — spacecraft have never been repaired or physically upgraded on orbit. RSGS will demonstrate a suite of capabilities critical to national security and not currently available or anticipated to be offered commercially in the near term, including ultra-close inspection, repair of mechanical anomalies, and installation of technical packages on the exterior of US satellites, all of which require highly dexterous robotic arms. DARPA has already designed and created the required robotic arms.

Under the RSGS program, a DARPA-developed modular toolkit (the robotic payload), including hardware and software, would be joined to a privately developed spacecraft to create a commercially operated robotic servicing vehicle (RSV) that could make house calls in space. DARPA’s role will be to contribute the robotics technology, expertise, and a Government-provided launch. DARPA’s selected commercial partner, Space Systems Loral (SSL), based in Palo Alto, CA, would contribute the satellite to carry the robotic payload, integration of the payload onto it and the RSV to the launch vehicle, and the mission operations center and staff.

DARPA carefully considered the best acquisition approach to ensure the RSGS capability would be made available to high-value Government assets and concluded that a public-private partnership was the best approach to save taxpayer dollars and accelerate technology development of high value to both the U.S. Government and the commercial satellite industry.

Since there are roughly four times as many commercial satellites in GEO as Government satellites, DARPA elected to find a commercial partner capable of servicing both in order to lower the cost of servicing to the Government and commercial entities and collect a broader range of research data. This partnership approach will enable the fastest deployment of RSGS capability. After a successful on-orbit demonstration of the robotic servicing vehicle, SSL would own and operate the vehicle and make cooperative servicing available to both military and commercial GEO satellite owners on a fee-for-service basis. In exchange for providing Government property to SSL, the Government will obtain reduced priced servicing of its satellites and access to commercial satellite servicing data throughout the operational life of the RSV.

Government-developed RSGS technologies would not become the exclusive property of DARPA’s commercial partner but would be shared with other qualified and interested U.S. space companies. Qualified companies would be able to obtain and license the technology through cooperative research and development agreements.

SSL is currently working with the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory (NRL), through MDA US Systems, a division of MDA managed by SSL, to design and build robotic arm flight hardware for the RSGS program.

Contrast with NASA’s RESTORE-L

DARPA has conducted extensive dialogues both with the Spacecraft Servicing Capabilities Office at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center and at NASA Headquarters regarding NASA’s RESTORE-L program, which aims to provide certain servicing options for satellites in low-Earth orbit. Engineers from RSGS and RESTORE-L attend each other’s requirements reviews and technical interchanges. NASA has benefited extensively from DARPA’s development of the robotic arm and automation software, and DARPA appreciates the testing that NASA has performed on its own system.

The hardware configuration of the RESTORE-L robotics is significantly different from the RSGS configuration, and is not being designed for the RSGS national security capabilities. While RSGS and NASA’s Restore-L mission both aim to showcase on-orbit servicing, the two programs exhibit several important differences:

--Restore-L will rely heavily on operation from the ground for critical servicing tasks while RSGS must perform many of its missions autonomously because of the communications delay inherent with operating at the greater distances of geostationary orbits.

--RSGS, unlike Restore-L, will be operated by a commercial partner for several years of operations in GEO following an initial demonstration, necessitating a higher-reliability design.

--Restore-L is aimed principally at satellite life extension; RSGS will demonstrate life extension while also upgrading or replacing faulty hardware and repairing stuck assemblies.

CONFERS

To help ensure the long-term sustainability of RSGS and other future space operations — and provide the foundation for a new commercial repertoire of robust space-based capabilities — DARPA recently solicited for the Consortium for Execution of Rendezvous and Servicing Operations (CONFERS) program. CONFERS will establish an industry/government forum composed of experts from throughout the space community. The forum would develop non-binding, consensus-derived technical and safety standards for on-orbit servicing operations, and help create definitions and expectations of responsible behavior in outer space.

In an important step toward a new era of advanced, cost-effective robotic capabilities in space, DARPA has selected Space Systems Loral (SSL) as its commercial partner for the Agency’s Robotic Servicing of Geosynchronous Satellites (RSGS) program. DARPA and SSL seek to develop technologies that would enable cooperative inspection and servicing of satellites in geosynchronous orbit (GEO) and demonstrate those technologies on orbit. If successful, the joint effort would radically lower the risk and cost of operating in GEO. Associated images posted on www.darpa.mil and video posted at www.youtube.com/darpatv may be reused according to the terms of the DARPA User Agreement, available here: http://go.usa.gov/cuTXR.
In an important step toward a new era of advanced, cost-effective robotic capabilities in space, DARPA has selected Space Systems Loral (SSL) as its commercial partner for the Agency’s Robotic Servicing of Geosynchronous Satellites (RSGS) program. DARPA and SSL seek to develop technologies that would enable cooperative inspection and servicing of satellites in geosynchronous orbit (GEO) and demonstrate those technologies on orbit. If successful, the joint effort would radically lower the risk and cost of operating in GEO. Associated images posted on www.darpa.mil and video posted at www.youtube.com/darpatv may be reused according to the terms of the DARPA User Agreement, available here: http://go.usa.gov/cuTXR.
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