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DARPA wants a robotic satellite mechanic in space by 2020

Soyuz MS-11 spacecraft moments before docking to the ISS on Dec. 3, 2018. (NASA/Released)
October 11, 2019

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) plans to have a robotic mechanic in space by 2022 and plans to announce a commercial partner by the end of the year.

The goal of the Robotic Servicing of Geosynchronous Spacecraft (RSGS) program at DARPA, which is developing the robot, is to deliver a spacecraft with two large 2-meter arms and other tools that will allow it to perform a number of maintenance functions on satellites in space, C4ISRNET reported.

“I’m standing here with a smile on my face. The program is moving forward and things are looking good and we’re very hopeful,” Joe Parrish, program manager for the RSGS, said at the 2019 Global Satellite Servicing Forum Oct. 1. “We’re looking to launch RSGS in late 2022.”

The spacecraft is reportedly going to be able to inspect other satellites using the host of cameras aboard, helping operators on the ground diagnose problems and inform in-orbit repairs.

“If somebody launches up into GEO while we’re up there and a solar array fails to deploy or a reflector or antenna fails to deploy, we can come galloping to the rescue,” Perrish said. “The benefit is not to demonstrate robot arms waving around in space. The benefit is to increase the resilience of our infrastructure in space.”

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DARPA, which is a part of the U.S. military, is looking for a commercial partner to build the spacecraft that will house the payload and carry it in orbit, while DARPA is going to develop the payload with robotic arms.

“We’re looking for the partner to provide the spacecraft bus — so using a heritage GEO bus that may have had some tailoring for RSGS requirements, integrating the payload and the spacecraft bus together, procuring and launching that integrated spacecraft to GEO, and then providing mission control center for operations for a long period of time,” Parrish explained.

While Parrish said that DARPA plans to turn over the project entirely to the commercial partner in time, DARPA has hit some snags in securing that commercial partner.

Orbital ATK attempted and failed to sue DARPA in 2017 to stop it from developing what it saw as competition to its own satellite servicing space vehicle. In 2018, Northop Group acquired Orbital ATK and now the subsidiary is preparing to launch the first satellite life extension vehicle into space, c4ISRNET reported.