[Satellite News 08-07-12] ATK was solicited by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) in late July to provide a modified satellite bus to the agency’s Phoenix program, which aims to develop technologies that will cooperatively harvest and re-use valuable components from retired, nonworking GEO satellites.
ATK will design a new bus to support robotic rendezvous and proximity operations and a grapple-and-repair robotic technology demonstration mission for a minimum of one year and will deliver the bus to DARPA and the NRL by October 2014 for space vehicle integration and testing.
ATK also was selected for a contract award in response to a Broad Agency Announcement (BAA) from DARPA to develop a Satellite Capture Tool (SCT) and an Aperture Grasp and Severing Tool (AGST) in partnership with the University of Maryland’s Space Systems Laboratory (SSL) for the Phoenix Technologies program’s primary robotics effort.
ATK joint venture with U.S. Space, ViviSat, played a role in obtaining the award, as ViviSat 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. In the second part of this two-part interview, ATK Vice President of Strategy and Business Development for Spacecraft Systems and retired U.S. Air Force Maj. Gen. Jim Armor spoke with Satellite News about how the DARPA Phoenix project is making a vital impact on the satellite manufacturing market.
Satellite News: Can you explain some of the technology design elements that you are developing for DARPA? How will ATK use these elements to help support DARPA’s Phoenix program?
Armor: NRL has issued a notice of intent to contract with ATK to modify an existing satellite bus owned by the US government for the geostationary Phoenix mission. The bus, developed by ATK, will be tailored as a servicer/tender platform to conduct rendezvous and proximity operations, and robotic servicing activities. Baselined to launch on an EELV, the servicer/tender will also carry multiple “satlets”, similar to nano-satellites, that are designed to attach to an aperture harvested robotically from a non-functional or end-of-life satellite, essentially creating a new spacecraft in orbit. In the future, these satlets could be launched into space carried by pods hosted on commercial or other launches, where they would be used to continue Phoenix Operations beyond the initial mission.
Satellite News: How does the Satellite Capture Tool (SCT) you’re building fit into the overall repurposing solution?
Armor: The SCT is one of two tools that will go on the end effectors of the DARPA repurposing robot’s arms. We’re providing sort of a tool belt for DARPA, and the SCT and the Aperture Grasp and Severing Tool (AGST) will act as a couple of the tools in the tool belt. There are a number of other tools that DARPA is going to need to complete their full mission. In this case, the SCT capture tool will be able to grab an out-of-control satellite at a wide variety of part points, such as a separation ring or several other structural pieces. The SCT has to be pretty flexible in grabbing these targets that may not be under control.
Satellite News: How does the AGST work with the SCT?
Armor: One of the experiments that DARPA wants to complete as part of the Phoenix program requires the ability to cut an old antenna off of an old satellite. In order to do that, the capturing tool will have to hold onto the satellite’s antenna and the vehicle while it cuts the connection to the antenna. This keeps all of the drifting parts of the satellite under control. The AGST is equipped with features that will make this possible, as well as the ability to handle these functions in zero gravity.
Satellite News: Did the ATK joint venture with ViviSat come into play in this contract with DARPA?
Armor: ATK and DARPA are exploring various roles that our ViviSat joint venture might play with the Phoenix program, but those are still under discussion and under source selection. We’ve made substantial investments in building ViviSat’s Mission Extension Vehicle (MEV). We are actively looking for potential partnerships in applications outside of the DARPA program, as well. We believe that satellite servicing is going to be a growing market, whether it involves life extension, satellite repair, in-orbit refueling or repurposing, such as what DARPA is doing with Phoenix. It is not a market that is going to explode overnight, but rather enjoy steady growth in the long-term. We are interested in being a part of that — it’s a part of our heritage as a company.
Satellite News: Do you think the market will see more flexible satellite technologies like your smaller satellite buses and satellite repurposing solutions in the future?
Armor: We’re seeing a real opportunity in a newer and wider variety of markets due to tighter budgets. Innovative ideas can produce smaller and smaller on-orbit technologies that can fit into these tighter budgets. Innovation enables more and more possibilities. Everybody in the government sector that works with satellite knows that we may not see big budgets for satellites for some time. It is time to think smaller. It is time to think about augmenting current constellations and assets for resiliency with smaller, more flexible satellites that can be reconstituted quickly if we lose bigger spacecraft. Overall, we’re pretty upbeat about where the market is headed and we feel prepared for the new direction.