DARPA Creates Catalyst Opportunity for On-Orbit Satellite Service Concept

[Satellite News 04-26-12] The United States’ Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is hoping to take a lead role in the space sustainability conversation by hosting a June 26 conference at DARPA’s Arlington Conference Center. This will serve as an open dialogue within the international space community regarding on-orbit satellite servicing. The agency is adopting the same strategy that the Hosted Payload Alliance formed to lobby for the procurement of hosted payload platforms.

   DARPA said the “Fostering Sustainable Satellite Servicing” conference would be open to the international space, satellite and related-technologies communities, and will include international speakers. The agency’s recently announced Phoenix program, which aims to develop and demonstrate technologies to cooperatively harvest and re-use valuable components from retired, non-working satellites in GEO, will likely be pushed as a catalyst in creating new space systems at reduced costs during a time when space budgets are being slashed by the U.S. government.
   DARPA Phoenix Program Manager Dave Barnhart said the agency is looking forward to an opportunity to foster international discussion on satellite servicing.
   “In concert with the global space community and our international partners, we hope to create innovative technologies and techniques for space-to-space activities,” Barnhart said in a statement to Satellite News. “If successful, re-using existing satellite components may not only dramatically lower the cost of GEO satellite missions for the U.S. Department of Defense’s needs, but may also serve to demonstrate, through advanced techniques and technology, a model for future on-orbit servicing activities.”
Satellites that operate in geosynchronous orbit above the Earth have long provided communications and other vital services to U.S. warfighters. DARPA developed its Phoenix program during the last year to demonstrate technologies to cooperatively harvest and re-use valuable components from retired, nonworking satellites in GEO orbit.
   When a GEO communication satellite fails, it is traditionally moved into a “graveyard” orbit where it remains indefinitely. “Many of the satellites which are obsolete or have failed still have usable antennas, solar arrays and other components which are expected to last much longer than the life of the satellite, but currently there is no way to re-use them,” said Barnhart “DARPA pioneered on-orbit satellite servicing with the successful 2007 Orbital Express demonstrator mission. Future widespread pursuit of on-orbit satellite servicing would benefit from discussions regarding the broad spectrum of technical challenges and non-technical obstacles ranging from policy, legal and other constraints that may hamper progress in this field.”
   DARPA officials said there are currently about 1,300 GEO satellites worth more than $300 billion in orbit that could be retrofitted for new purposes. DARPA’s Phoenix system employs a class of small nano-satellites that are designed to ride as a secondary passenger on a commercial satellite launch payload heading to GEO orbit. The nano-satellite would then attach to the antenna of a non-operational satellite to create a new space system.
   While the in-orbit satellite-servicing concept seems ideal to cultivate a profitable market, the technology has not achieved much success in the private sector. In January, satellite operator Intelsat and Canadian space company MDA terminated a $280 million in-orbit satellite life extension service agreement that was signed by the two companies in March 2011. The deal would have employed MDA’s space-based Space Infrastructure Servicing (SIS) vehicle to refuel, reposition or maintain commercial and government satellites.
   At the time it was announced, MDA and Intelsat said the companies would finalize specifications and other requirements before both parties authorize the build phase of the program. The first refueling mission was scheduled for 2015, or 3.5 years after the manufacturing phase began. The partnership also represented the first time that a major satellite operator had officially endorsed a satellite-refueling program. Intelsat General had previously attempted to advise the U.S. Department of Defense to finance the refueling of one of its satellites, but U.S. Air Force officials claimed that their current satellite fleets are undergoing replacements that have already been financed and that it would be difficult to find funds for a new program.
   U.S.-based in-orbit servicing provider ViviSat, however, announced last month that it was ready to build its mission extension vehicles and prove its preparedness in demonstrations. ViviSat, a satellite life extension joint venture between U.S. Space and ATK, intends to provide geosynchronous satellite operators with in-orbit mission extension and protection services in order to add to the revenue-producing life of its customers’ satellites.
   ViviSat CEO Craig Weston said the design phase for the servicing vehicle is progressing on schedule and that the company is in negotiations with potential customers. “The market conditions for ViviSat are strong, with productive and energetic activity on numerous fronts,” ViviSat Board Member and ATK Vice President and General Manager Tom Wilson added. “Both government and commercial organizations are engaged and ViviSat is participating in many business and research efforts. All of this activity demonstrates what we’ve been saying — there is great value in revitalizing space assets.”
   Meanwhile, DARPA has awarded about $36 million in contracts during the last three month to companies interested in building system components for the Phoenix program. DARPA added that a Payload Orbital Delivery System (PODS) would also be designed under the program to safely house the nano-satellites for transport aboard a commercial satellite launch vehicle. In a statement, DARPA Program Manager David Barnhart said the agency expects to have an on-orbit demonstration of at least one successful aperture repurposing using a robotic GEO spacecraft in 2015 or 2016. The on-orbit demonstration will take place in either a GEO, super-GEO or graveyard orbit.

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