WASHINGTON: A robot satellite repair system under development by DARPA has drawn the baleful glances of half-a-dozen congressmen and a lawsuit to block it by aerospace company Orbital ATK.
The technology, known as Robotic Servicing of Geosynchronous Satellites, would offer enormous benefits to both the National Reconnaissance Office, operator of our spy satellites, as well as the international commercial satellite companies such as Intelsat. Why? Because using RSGS, satellites in geosynchronous orbit — 22,000 miles up — could be checked for problems, repaired and even get new sensors installed. Today, the school bus-sized spy satellites built and run by the NRO and the commercial satellites have to be built to withstand the rigors of space. If something goes wrong, it can be very difficult to tell the cause, let alone fix it.
The problem is that Orbital ATK is building a system it believes competes directly with the DARPA initiative, which would be a violation of the US National Space Policy. The policy requires “that the government not build or buy systems” that “preclude, discourage or compete” with commercial systems.
DARPA drafted a contract to award the RSGS contract to Space Systems Loral. The contract announcement was mistakenly posted very briefly Monday night. I and other reporters agreed to hold the news pending DARPA working out what it said were last minute kinks with the deal. Then Orbital filed its lawsuit.
If the program goes ahead, DARPA would develop the robotic module, including hardware and software, and provide a government-funded launch. Loral would provide a spacecraft and integrate the module. It would also supply a mission operations center and staff.
After an on-orbit demonstration, Loral would operate the vehicle and make cooperative servicing available to both military and commercial GEO satellite owners on a fee-for-service basis.
However, DARPA issued letters Feb. 3 to lawmakers arguing that the program does not violate the National Space Policy. Orbital clearly didn’t buy it and filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia “in response to DARPA’s apparent decision to continue pursuing a program that violates long-standing principles of the U.S. National Space Policy, wastes taxpayer funds, and benefits a foreign-owned corporation.”
Orbital-ATK has invested at least $100 million in what it says is a similar system, the Orbital Mission Extension Vehicle (MEV). In April last year, Orbital announced that the commercial satellite giant Intelsat would buy the first of the system. “Orbital ATK will continue to pursue all available options to oppose DARPA from moving forward with this illegal and wasteful use of U.S. taxpayer dollars,” the company says in a statement.
For its part, DARPA Acting Director Steven Walker says in his letter to Rep. Derek Kilmer, a member of the powerful House Appropriations commerce, justice and science subcommittee, that DARPA would share the “robotic servicing technologies will not become the exclusive property of its commercial partner but will be shared with other qualified and interested U.S. aerospace companies.”
The suit (above) details the legal grounds for Orbital’s objections. They obviously don’t agree that DARPA has done enough to meet their objections. Their statement ends: “Orbital ATK will continue to pursue all available options to oppose DARPA from moving forward with this illegal and wasteful use of U.S. taxpayer dollars.”