The US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has started looking into building robots that can service satellites in geosynchronous orbit (GEO).
“The objective of the Robotic Servicing of Geosynchronous Satellites (RSGS) program is to create a dexterous robotic operational capability in GEO that can both provide increased resilience for the current US space infrastructure and be the first concrete step toward a transformed space architecture with revolutionary capabilities,” DARPA said in a statement.
“The long-term vision of the RSGS program is to enable persistent robotic servicing capabilities in GEO, beginning with the robotic servicer developed under the RSGS program and operated by a commercial entity, with the goal of achieving an enduring, reliable, cost-effective GEO satellite servicing presence.”
The Agency is now seeking an industry partner to jointly develop a robotic servicing vehicle in GEO. The joint team will need to manufacture the ‘spacecraft bus’, integrate a government-provided payload, launch the bus, provide ground communications to the entire GEO belt, and operate the vehicle commercially in GEO ‘after DARPA-specified demonstrations on-orbit’.
DARPA also said that it anticipates the industry partner to gain significant financial benefit from commercial and government GEO servicing. Satellites in GEO generally cost $300 million to build and $100 million to launch, for an average lifespan of fifteen years.
The news is a step towards in-orbit satellite refuelling, which would extend the lifespan of GEO satellites by providing enough fuel to course-correct and prevent orbital degradation. Other challenges, however, include the need to pump fluid in microgravity into a satellite that was not designed to be refuelled.
Some companies, including Northrop Grumman’s Space Logistics business, are developing Mission Extension Vehicles (MEVs) that can attach to satellites and provide orbital corrections. The company intends to make its first life-extension docking later this year, whilst Israeli outfit Effective Space intends to launch two similar systems next year.
Local companies are also looking to take a slice of this market, with Canberra-based EOS working on a laser technology that can ‘nudge’ satellites or space debris.