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Hundreds of military, government and commercial satellites reside today in geosynchronous Earth orbit (GEO) some 22,000 miles (36,000 kilometers) above the Earth—a perch ideal for providing communications, meteorology and national security services, but one so remote as to preclude inspection and diagnosis of malfunctioning components, much less upgrades or repairs. Even fully functional satellites sometimes find their working lives cut short simply because they carry obsolete payloads—a frustrating situation for owners of assets worth hundreds of millions of dollars. With no prospects for assistance once in orbit, satellites destined for GEO today are loaded with backup systems and as much fuel as can be accommodated, adding to their complexity, weight and cost. But what if help was just a service call away?
DARPA’s new Robotic Servicing of Geosynchronous Satellites (RSGS) program intends to answer that question by developing technologies that would enable cooperative inspection and servicing in GEO and demonstrating those technologies on orbit within the next five years. Under the RSGS vision, a DARPA-developed modular toolkit, including hardware and software, would be joined to a privately developed spacecraft to create a commercially owned and operated robotic servicing vehicle (RSV) that could make house calls in space. DARPA would contribute the robotics technology, expertise, and a Government-provided launch. The commercial partner would contribute the satellite to carry the robotic payload, integration of the payload onto it, and the mission operations center and staff. If successful, the joint effort could radically lower the risk and cost of operating in GEO.
“The ability to safely and cooperatively service satellites in GEO would vastly expand public and private opportunities in space. It could enable entirely new spacecraft designs and operations, including on-orbit assembly and maintenance, which could dramatically lower construction and deployment costs while extending satellite utility, resilience and reliability,” said RSGS program manager Gordon Roesler. “Commercial and government space operators have sought this capability for decades. By investing together, we can achieve a capability that would be extremely challenging to do individually.”
To formalize that collaboration, DARPA aims to establish a public-private partnership through which the Agency would develop and provide technical capabilities for transition to a commercial space robotics enterprise that would make cooperative robotic servicing available to both military and commercial GEO satellite owners on a fee-for-service basis. DARPA seeks to engage a commercial partner with a strategic interest in this capability, and an interest in providing services to the Defense Department (DoD).