PALO ALTO, Calif. -- Space Systems Loral (SSL) has signed and executed an agreement with the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to develop advanced capabilities for servicing and maintaining spacecraft in geostationary orbit.
The agreement was first announced in February 2017, when DARPA selected SSL as its commercial partner for the Agency’s Robotic Servicing of Geosynchronous Satellites (RSGS) program. Under the deal, DARPA and SSL will develop technologies to 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.
Under the 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, the RSGS public-private effort would be a first for DARPA in the space-servicing domain. As such, the Agency’s selection of SSL was submitted for review by the Defense Department’s Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics. That's why the agreement was not officially signed until April 12.
After a successful on-orbit demonstration of the robotic servicing vehicle (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. RSV capabilities include inspection, refueling, mechanical anomaly correction, relocation, and installation of attachable payloads. 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.
Satellite life extension has become a hot topic in recent years. The cost to repair, refuel, and relocate a satellite can be significantly cheaper than building and launching an entirely new spacecraft. This is especially true for expensive government satellites and commercial geosynchronous communications satellites.
However, as more companies and organizations enter the field, it will become more competitive. That will lead to more innovation, but also more conflict as can be seen by a lawsuit filed by Orbital ATK against the DARPA-SSL deal, which claims that the contract creates unnecessary competition with Orbital's own MEV-1 in-space servicing vehicle.