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DARPA bolsters blueprint to build robotic services for satellites

Sep 03, 20144 mins

DARPA plan might integrate robotics with commercial spacecraft to expedite services

In five years the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) wants to launch a robotic servicing mission to inspect, fix, refuel or move satellites in geostationary Earth orbit.

In order to move that plan along, the research agency today issued a Request for Information (RFI) calling on commercial and private space groups to provide details on what it would take to accomplish the lofty goal.

To expedite the mission, DARPA said it is considering the possibilities of integrating DARPA-developed space robotics technologies onto commercial spacecraft to create a jointly developed GEO robotic service craft.

The under-development robotic payload DARPA talks about consists of a pair of 2 meter, 7-Degree of Freedom (DoF) robotic arms with tool changers, a suite of tools, control systems (including electronics, software, machine vision and control algorithms), cameras and lights, a payload power distribution system, high resolution imaging sensors, rendezvous and proximity operations sensors, and a single 3-4 meter robotic inspection arm with up to 9-DoF. A third FREND arm might replace the robotic inspection arm. This robotic payload is being designed to address a set of diverse mission areas, which include high resolution inspection, orbit modification, and anomaly resolution, DARPA stated.

DARPA said it is aware of current industry-led servicing development efforts, particularly those aiming to enable on-orbit refueling and satellite life extension. The agency welcomes information on possible early-opportunity collaborations or partnerships involving such missions, including technology demonstration and maturation, data sharing, or testing.

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 “The commercially owned-and-operated servicer would work cooperatively with client satellites to support a variety of multi-year on-orbit missions, including inspection, correction of mechanical problems and orbit adjustment. DARPA seeks to create a capability that could both maximize the utility of current space infrastructure and lead to revolutionary future capabilities,” the agency stated.

DARPA said the RFI is looking for details in two key areas:

1. Technical characteristics for a robotic servicer that would integrate DARPA-developed space robotics technologies into commercially available spacecraft designed for GEO. Building on DARPA’s Phoenix program and more than a decade of the agency’s other investments in space robotics, the jointly developed GEO robotic servicer would support a variety of multi-year on-orbit missions.  The Phoenix program you may recall  would use a squadron of what DARPA calls “satlets” and a larger tender craft to retrofit or retrieve old satellites and parts for reuse.

2. Business arrangements and practices that would best facilitate a commercial spacecraft servicing enterprise that is long-lived and self-sustaining, and would achieve the greatest value for U.S. national and economic security. DARPA envisions that a non-traditional acquisition instrument may be appropriate to establish this partnership. DARPA wishes to consider creative solutions in this domain and thus desires industry input for structuring the commercial partnership solicitation.

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DARPA says GEO contains the largest concentration of unserviced high-value satellites  in existence  — some 1,300 satellites worth over $300B — and many of them perform critical economic and defense roles. Because the majority of satellites in GEO are commercially owned, a promising approach to ensuring a servicing capability for U.S. Government assets is through a model that jointly engages commercial stakeholders.