The progress and promise of on-orbit servicing – a Q&A with DARPA’s Gordon Roesler

On-Orbit Servicing

In previous posts on the Government Satellite Report, we covered the discussion at a Washington Space Business Roundtable (WSBR) event that featured an all-star panel of space experts discussing on-orbit servicing of satellites. During that discussion, the panel talked about why it’s a capability that’s enticing to both the military and commercial satellite operators, and steps that industry and government organizations have made towards making it a reality.

Following that discussion, we reached out to Dr. Gordon Roesler, a Program Manager in DARPA’s Tactical Technology Office, who has been at the forefront of many of DARPA’s on-orbit servicing initiatives and programs. During our conversation with Dr. Roesler, we sought to learn more about how far on-orbit servicing technologies and capabilities have progressed, and to get a better picture of what on-orbit servicing can enable into the future.

In part one of our two-part conversation with Dr. Roesler, we talked about the current state of on-orbit servicing, what future generations of this technology will enable and why on-orbit servicing is in such high demand. Here is what Gordon had to say:

Government Satellite Report (GSR): Where does on-orbit servicing currently stand? Is this science fiction, or are we rapidly approaching a reality where satellites can be refueled and repaired in space? How long until we get there?

Dr. Roesler: As we move forward, there are going to be generations of servicing that offer increasingly sophisticated capabilities.

Generation One is what I call simple life extension, and there are already a couple of established players in that field. Effective Space is a UK organization that is building satellites that go up and dock with operating commercial communication satellites and help them maintain their positions and conserve their fuel, so that’s life extension through fuel conservation. Orbital ATK is doing something similar.

Generation Two is what DARPA is working on. We’re looking to use very sophisticated robotics to do things beyond just life extension. Using robotics, we’re looking to perform ultra close inspections, use robotic arms to repair satellites that aren’t functioning properly, or even perform upgrades – such as adding a new module to an operating spacecraft.

In terms of timing, Gen One is slated to launch in the 2018-2020 time frame and DARPA’s Gen Two servicer is going to launch in 2021.

I should also mention the NASA Restore-L effort, which blends Gen One and Gen Two technologies and capabilities. It’s a spacecraft that uses a DARPA robotic arm in order to refuel a NASA satellite. That’s effectively providing a Gen One service with a Gen Two technology.

GSR: What are the commercial benefits of on-orbit servicing? Why are commercial satellite operators interested in this capability?

Dr. Roesler: Let’s look at this in terms of the same Gen One and Gen Two breakout. When it comes to Gen One, life extension is a big reason for commercial interest. Life extension will provide an operator with fleet flexibility. Take, for example, SES, which has around 50 [satellites] in operation; if they can keep one of those on longer than was expected, they can shuffle the fleet around and provide services in a much more flexible way.

At the same time, this offers the benefit of minimizing capital expenditures by filling any gaps that might occur in the fleet without having to build an entirely new satellite. So the Gen One services are very valuable to commercial satellite operators.

Gen Two [on-orbit servicing] provides even more opportunity. Think about being able to bring up a new payload and attaching it to an existing satellite. Rather than having [to build] a new satellite to provide that capability, the operator only has to build a new payload. Not only does it defer capital expenditure, it actually reduces it.

This kind of idea of replacing payloads in-orbit also allows the operators to keep up with the needs of the terrestrial customer base. A satellite’s estimated life is around 15 years. That’s a long time to predict and understand what your customer base is going to look like or need. The ability to easily adjust the payloads in sync with customers can help keep the business case for that satellite alive.

Then there’s this idea of being able to perform repairs. About once every two years, a commercial satellite goes up and has some sort of deployment anomaly. If that could be repaired, not only does that allow you to recover the satellite capability faster than by building and launching a new spacecraft, but it also reduces insurance claims payouts. It’s really a win-win. So there’s a host of benefits from the development and introduction of Gen Two capabilities.

How do those benefits compare with the federal government and military? Are the benefits for them the same? Are there other reasons why they’re interested in this?

Dr. Roesler: Every one of those benefits that I mentioned also pertains to the U.S. government. The fleet flexibility, the reduced capital expenditures. We don’t have insurance companies, our insurance is from the taxpayers, so if we can save them the cost of a new satellite by repairing an anomaly, that’s a benefit as well.

There is also the ability to protect and provide resilience to our government satellites. An ultra close inspection with a robotic arm can help operators differentiate between an engineering flaw and a hostile act. So it could help to maintain rational behavior. When things fail and we don’t understand why they fail, we tend to be suspicious, that’s just the nature of it. This could alleviate that suspicion.

So there is a strategic benefit to this ultra close inspection. Also, there’s the benefit of being able to include new capabilities for protection of our existing satellites, as well as all the other benefits in terms of longevity and flexibility and repair.

Be sure to check back for part two of our conversation with Dr. Roesler, when we discuss the advanced capabilities that will be introduced via Gen Two on-orbit servicing, and what Gen Three could hold for the industry.

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