DARPA to service satellites in space


Satellites operators have been longing for it for decades, and DARPA (once again?) is turning their dream into reality: on March 25, one of America’s most futuristic agency announced it would launch a public-private partnership to provide in-orbit servicing to geosynchronous satellites, both commercial and military.

The program dubbed Robotic Servicing of Geosynchronous Satellites (RSGS) will be a major breakthrough for the satellite industry world. Since Sputnik’s launch, the biggest weakness of satellites was that, once on orbit, nothing could be done if something went wrong or once the fuel tank ran dry. A rather embarrassing issue when considering how pricey such platforms are. The only maintenance and repair operations performed to date were manned (Hubble telescope, ISS). The agency announced that it would allocate RSGS $500mn over the next few years, supplemented by commercial partner investment.

DARPA’s RSGS is composed of two elements: the arm that will dock and manipulate the satellite, and the space ship carrying it. Regarding the first element, the agency will provide its Front-end Robotics Enabling Near-term Demonstration (FREND) technology. The prototype of the FREND arm was built for the agency by the California-based company Alliance Space Systems. The robotic arm will enable it to dock with satellites and carry out maintenance.

Interested private companies would provide the robotic servicing vehicle (RSV). Interestingly, a few weeks before this announcement, American Orbital ATK revealed it was launching an in-orbit life extension vehicle, with Intelsat pledging to be the first customer. The Virginia-based company will manufacture and test the Mission Extension Vehicle – 1 (MEV-1) to perform maintenance work.

The 2,000kg platform will be able to dock with spacecraft up to 3,500 to 4,000kg. The vehicle will perform services such as refueling, robotic repair of damages, or assembly of multiple structures. The services will be provided through Vivisat, a JV between Orbital ATK and US Space. The entry into service of MEV-1 is scheduled for 2018 with a 15-year design life, enabling it to perform several servicing missions over the course of its life. In the medium term, the ATK fleet will comprise 5 additional servicing vehicles.

Robotic satellite servicing is also being explored by NASA as a way to test capabilities seen as necessary for a human mission to Mars. The agency requested in FY16 $130mn to conduct experiments on the technology. .

With on-orbit servicing, satellites operators will be able to make their satellites last longer (refueling, repairing) but also to enhance their capabilities through the upgrade of payloads, for instance. This will have an impact on how satellite manufacturers will design their platforms. In the future, they will likely be more standardized with the possibility to add or replace payloads. Martin Markham, a Lockheed Martin executive, was quoted by the WSJ explaining that the main challenge was now to “design [space] architectures and spacecraft to be serviceable […] and think about the capability to insert new and powerful advances in technology.”

If such services will undoubtedly represent a breakthrough in the commercial satellite industry, the main implication is more likely to be found with the military. As acknowledged by the US government, military space assets lack defense capability against various earth-based threats (jamming, hacking, ASATs weapons…), and also against in-orbit maneuvering satellites. It is mainly that kind of threat that the DARPA’s RSGS tends to address.

DARPA is quite knowledgeable about the risks presented by foes’ “rendezvous and proximity operations” (RPOs) since it was one of the first in the world to perform such a maneuver back in 2006. At that time, 2 Mitex micro satellites “inspected” a geostationary DSP23 satellite. One year earlier, NASA performed a Demonstration of Autonomous Rendezvous Technology (DART) when one of its satellites bumped into an old Navy ComSat. Outer space rendezvous were then performed by China’s SJ-12 satellite in 2008.

In 2013, astronomy enthusiasts busted several Russian undeclared satellites performing proximity flights and RPOs with other Russian spacecraft. In 2015, the Russian space program received media attention when it was revealed that one of its satellites moved to get closer to two Intelsat satellites (Intelsat is a DoD contractor). SpaceNews mentioned that according to an Air Force official, the Luch satellite came as close as 5km to another.

When considering DARPA’s Robotic Servicing of Geosynchronous Satellites (RSGS), it appears that the first upgrades performed on military satellites will aim at enhancing satellites’ space situational awareness (SSA). DARPA’s Steve Roesler was quoted by WSJ saying that “one option may be to attach new equipment to the outside of existing Pentagon satellites to monitor space conditions”. It would not be a surprise that such technologies may have already been tested in space thanks to Boeing’s X-37B unmanned spacecraft. The miniature space shuttle stayed in orbit for 2 years between 2012 and 2014 to perform tests on undisclosed payloads.

In the end, the RSGS is part of the broader US Third Offset Effort, described by Deputy Defense Secretary Bob Work as a doctrine to maintain technological superiority over Russia and China. On March 8, Deputy Undersecretary of the Air Force for Space Winston Beauchamp told at the Satellite 2016 Conference that such effort to enhance space assets resiliency represented around $5.5bn in last year Defense budget.

A major effort consists in the Space Fence, a $1.5bn ground-based program consisting of radars aimed at analysing objects in orbits.

Written by ADIT – The Bulletin and republished with permission.