Robots will soon be able to repair Geosynchronous Satellites. ‘Robotic Servicing Vehicle’ are being developed by DARPA

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 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.

By executing the RSGS program, DARPA seeks to:

  • Demonstrate in or near GEO that a robotic servicing vehicle can perform safe, reliable, useful and efficient operations, with the flexibility to adapt to a variety of on-orbit missions and conditions
  • Demonstrate satellite servicing mission operations on operational GEO satellites in collaboration with commercial and U.S. Government spacecraft operators
  • Support the development of a servicer spacecraft with sufficient propellant and payload robustness to enable dozens of missions over several years

Image Caption: DARPA’s new Robotic Servicing of Geosynchronous Satellites (RSGS) program seeks to develop technologies that would enable cooperative inspection and servicing in geosynchronous Earth orbit (GEO) and demonstrate those technologies on orbit within the next five years. Under the RSGS vision, that DARPA-developed toolkit module, including hardware and software, would attach to a privately developed spacecraft to create a commercially owned and operated robotic servicing vehicle (RSV) that could make house calls in space. If successful, the effort could radically lower the risk and cost of operating in GEO. Click below for a high-resolution image.

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.

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