US: A robot satellite repair system that is under development at DARPA is inviting flak from half-a-dozen of the lawmakers and aerospace company Orbital ATK, who is demanding to block it. The technology, known as Robotic Servicing of Geosynchronous Satellites (RSGS), would offer enormous benefits to the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), operator of the U.S. spy satellites, as well as the international commercial satellite companies such as Intelsat.
When in space, the RSGS satellites can be used to check problems, doing repair job, and can even get new sensors installed. Despite that, the reason why Orbital ATK is against it, is because the company is building a system that 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.
Orbital filed the lawsuit as it was reported that DARPA has almost decided to award the RSGS contract to Space Systems Loral. If the program goes ahead, DARPA would develop the robotic module, including hardware and software, and provide a government-funded launch, whereas, Loral would provide a spacecraft and integrate the module. The company would also supply a mission operations center and staff.
Once that has been done, Loral would operate the vehicle and make cooperative servicing available to both military and commercial GEO satellite owners on a fee-for-service basis.
As far as violation of the National Space Policy is concerned, DARPA issued letters to congressmen on Feb. 3 arguing that the program does not violate the policy. However, 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.”
Complaint filed by Orbital ATK
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.”