DARPA building space consortium to set standards for safe robotic maneuvers

DARPA: Satellite operations in space lack of clear, widely accepted technical and safety standards

conferes infographic
Credit: DARPA

DARPA next month will talk about a proposed consortium of industry players that will research, develop, and publish standards for safe commercial robotic servicing operations in Earth’s orbit.

Specifically, DARPA said it wants to create the Consortium for Execution of Rendezvous and Servicing Operations or CONFERS that looks to establish a forum that would use best practices from government and industry to research, develop and publish non-binding, consensus-derived technical and safety standards for on-orbit servicing operations. In doing so, the program would provide a clear technical basis for definitions and expectations of responsible behavior in outer space. In the end the ultimate goal is to provide the technical foundation to shape safe and responsible commercial space operations to preserve the safety of the global commons of space, DARPA stated.

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DARPA intends to launch CONFERS under the leadership of a “Secretariat” that will develop the consortium into a viable and sustainable non‐governmental organization. The CONFERS Secretariat should be a lean organization composed of an executive director and the necessary support staff to assist consortium operations, DARPA stated.

“We’re inviting the space community to join us in creating a permanent, self-sustaining ‘one-stop shop’ where industry can collaborate and engage with the U.S. Government about on-orbit servicing, as well as drive the creation of the standards that future servicing providers will follow,” said Todd Master, DARPA program manager. “These standards would integrate data, expertise, and experience from both government and industry while protecting commercial participants’ financial and strategic interests, and provide investors, insurers, potential customers, and other stakeholders with the confidence to pursue and engage in this promising new sector.”

DARPA said such a standards body is needed as programs such as the agencies own Robotic Servicing of Geosynchronous Satellite (RSGS) program come into play. The RSGS program is developing technologies that would let customers service satellites in GEO. DARPA says a modular toolkit, including hardware and software, would be joined to a privately developed spacecraft to create a commercially owned and operated robotic servicing vehicle that could make house calls in space.

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“Recent technological advances have made the longstanding dream of on-orbit robotic servicing of satellites a near-term possibility. The potential advantages of that unprecedented capability are enormous. Instead of designing their satellites to accommodate the harsh reality that, once launched, their investments could never be repaired or upgraded, satellite owners could use robotic vehicles to physically inspect, assist, and modify their on-orbit assets. That could significantly lower construction and deployment costs while dramatically extending satellite utility, resilience, and reliability,” DARPA stated. “But these efforts all face a major roadblock: the lack of clear, widely accepted technical and safety standards for responsible performance of on-orbit activities involving commercial satellites, including rendezvous and proximity operations (RPO) that don’t involve physical contact with satellites and robotic servicing operations that would. Without these standards, the long-term sustainability of outer space operations is potentially at risk.”

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DARPA will host a Proposers Day on Friday, December 16 at DARPA’s offices in Arlington, Va., to discuss CONFERS.

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