DARPA Looks to Service Satellites in Space – an Interview with Gordon Roesler

Last month, I had the opportunity to attend the 2016 SATELLITE Conference – one of the largest and most influential satellite and space industry events of the year. The conference, which was hosted at the Gaylord National Convention Center, in National Harbor, MD, brought together industry leaders, satellite experts and government decision makers to discuss the future of the industry, new and emerging satellite technologies and the trends that will shape the way SATCOM is utilized across the government and private industry today and into the future.

One of the most exciting and interesting new technologies that was discussed at this year’s conference – surprisingly – wasn’t a topic of a panel discussion, or available to see and play with on the exposition floor. Rather, it was casually mentioned during the Q&A session by Dr. Gordon Roesler, a Program Manager in the Tactical Technology Office (TTO) at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), following a panel discussion on hosted payloads.

During the aforementioned Q&A session, Dr. Roesler stood up and addressed the panelists about the need to change payloads and otherwise service spacecraft in orbit. He also introduced panel attendees to a new DARPA program that would utilize robotics to do just that.

Enthralled by this new concept and eager to know more, I asked Dr. Roesler to participate in an interview for the GovSat Report, so that he could educate publication readers and staff – alike – about this new program.

Here is what Dr. Roesler had to say:

GordonGovSat Report: During one of the panels at this year’s SATELLITE 2016 Conference, you discussed a new program from DARPA aiming to use robotics to make changes or repairs to satellites in space. What are the main factors driving a program like this forward? What types of missions is DARPA looking to accomplish with this program?

Dr. Roesler: The program is called Robotic Servicing of Geosynchronous Satellites (RSGS). The goal of the program is to create a dexterous robotic operational capability in Geosynchronous Orbit (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.

Today, satellites are placed in orbit, but then are never inspected, repaired or upgraded. They have long lifetimes, but the technology on them becomes obsolete, and they cannot keep up with changes on the ground. One driver for RSGS is to change this paradigm, by enabling some of the same kinds of services that are provided to other high-value assets, like aircraft, ships, and communication systems.

Today’s satellites are not designed with servicing in mind. So the key RSGS driver is to  provide valuable services even to satellites that have no special modifications for servicing. DARPA technology development has shown that a robotic servicing vehicle can provide at least four servicing missions to unmodified but cooperative customer satellites: ultra-close inspection; assistance with orbit changes; use of robotic manipulation to correct mechanisms (solar arrays, antennas) that have not deployed correctly; and mechanical installation of upgrade or add-on capabilities.

GovSat Report: What challenges is the military currently having that make this program necessary today?

Dr. Roesler: The United States is expected to derive multiple benefits from this GEO satellite servicing capability. Since GEO contains the largest concentration of unserviced high-value assets – many of which perform critical defense and economic roles – it would be of great value to have a reliable and responsive servicing capability available in GEO.

The U.S. Government operates far more satellites in GEO than any other nation. GEO satellites have experienced failures, malfunctions, schedule delays, coverage gaps, unforeseen maneuvers, and other anomalous events.

Because GEO satellites reside on or near a single orbital path, the RSGS servicer would travel among them with little propellant consumption, enabling it to perform many servicing missions before using up its own propellant. The vehicle could provide inspection, repair, upgrade, and repositioning services to Government spacecraft when required, while deriving revenue from servicing commercial spacecraft.

Specific servicing needs that are unavailable today include inspection to determine the cause of on-orbit anomalies; anomaly resolution to repair malfunctioning satellites; orbit modification for relocation, transfer to the disposal orbit, or correction of propulsion system underperformance; and capability enhancement, the transfer of packages with new capabilities and installation on GEO satellites. The RSGS program targets these services for spacecraft currently on orbit or in production, none of which have been specifically designed to be serviced.

GovSat Report: The concept of removing and replacing payloads in space sounds attractive, but is it necessary? During SATELLITE 2016, we heard many speakers discussing software defined payloads and building flexibility into satellites. We’re also seeing the rise of commercial companies with business models tied to extending the life of spacecraft in orbit. What differentiates this program from these services and from the capabilities that are being built into spacecraft today for agility and flexibility?

Dr. Roesler: While uploading new software is a valuable approach for introducing some new capabilities, so is installing upgraded processors, sensors, communication systems and hardware to avoid obsolescence. The same dexterous, flexible robotic payload being developed for RSGS can execute deployment assistance and close inspection, but is also uniquely capable of doing on-orbit installation.

Life extension is a valuable capability, but is not the focus of the RSGS program, which instead emphasizes dexterous robotic capabilities that are not available today.

GovSat Report: How do you anticipate DARPA developing this new technology? Will this be done as a private/public partnership with industry partners, or as a stand-alone military program? Has there been any interest from private industry in partnering on this program?

Dr. Roesler: The end state of the RSGS program is to be a commercially-owned and -operated robotic servicing vehicle (RSV), which carries the Government-furnished robotic payload.

The vehicle will be developed in partnership with a team including the government, a satellite manufacturer, the eventual owner, and the operator. The commercial team will be able to leverage Government contributions, including the development, manufacture, integration and testing of the robotic payload and its advanced automation and payload mission management software; participation in integration of the payload and bus; a launch vehicle to deliver the RSV to GEO or to GEO transfer orbit; and assistance with operations team training and on-orbit operations.

The robotic payload will be designed for multi-year operations. Numerous US aerospace companies have expressed interest.

GovSat Report: What is the timeframe for such an innovative and ambitious program as this? Is this a capability that the military can expect to have available in the next five years? Ten years? Or this something that won’t be realized until well into the future?

Dr. Roesler: DARPA plans to place the RSGS servicing vehicle on orbit in about five years.

For additional coverage from this year’s SATELLITE 2016 Conference, click on the following articles:

Frustration mounts over lack of government hosted payload adoption 

The capacity is coming, the capacity is coming! Why now is the time for COMSATCOM in the federal government 

How government and industry can make hosted payloads happen – an interview with Earl White


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