DARPA Issues RFI for Satellite Servicing Mission

Satellite servicer (Credit: DARPA)
Satellite servicer (Credit: DARPA)

DARPA has issued a request for information (RFI) from potential partners for a satellite servicing spacecraft it hopes to launch in the next five years.

This RFI seeks information in two primary areas: 1) the technical characteristics of spacecraft buses that industry might supply for integration with the DARPA-developed space robotics technologies and 2) the business arrangements that potential industry partners and users would require or prefer in order to enter into a partnership agreement with the Government to enable a commercially owned and operated space robotic servicing capability. DARPA envisions that a non-traditional acquisition instrument may be appropriate to establish this partnership.

DARPA/TTO anticipates that responders may fall into one of three general categories: 1) Hardware/Software Developers (e.g., bus providers and ground system developers); 2) Satellite Servicing Organizations; and 3) Service Clients, such as commercial communications satellite operators. Responses are welcomed from any of these groups and should include an identification of the group(s) in which the responder belongs. Responders need not feel obligated to respond to questions that are not pertinent to their organization’s core competencies.

Additionally, DARPA/TTO is aware of other servicing efforts currently being pursued in industry, particularly those aiming to enable on-orbit refueling and satellite life extension. DARPA welcomes information on possible early opportunity collaborations or partnerships involving such missions (for example, technology demonstration and maturation, data sharing, or testing).

The RFI says the effort builds on the work being done in DARPA’s Phoenix program, which is developing a range of new technologies to improve satellite operations.

UPDATE: DARPA has issued a full press release about the RFI, which is reproduced below.

Wanted: Insights to Guide Creation of Robotic Satellite-Servicing Capabilities in Geostationary Earth Orbit

Space community invited to submit ideas to enable a flight demonstration in the next five years and an innovative public-private partnership to jumpstart a new industry

An increasing number of expensive, mission-critical satellites are launched every year into geostationary Earth orbit (GEO), approximately 22,000 miles (36,000 kilometers) above the Earth. Unlike objects in low Earth orbit (LEO), such as the Hubble Space Telescope, satellites in GEO are essentially unreachable with current technology. As a result, these satellites are designed to operate without any upgrades or repairs for their entire lifespan—a methodology that demands increased size, complexity and cost. The ability to safely and cooperatively interact with satellites in GEO would immediately revolutionize military and commercial space operations alike, lowering satellite construction and deployment costs and improving satellite lifespan, resilience and reliability.

To expedite these potential benefits, DARPA is considering a flight demonstration to introduce DARPA-developed space robotics capabilities in GEO within the next five years. Because the majority of satellites in GEO are commercially owned, DARPA is particularly interested in establishing a public-private partnership that would make cooperative robotic servicing available to both military and commercial GEO satellite owners on a fee-for-service basis. The partnership would help develop near-term technical capabilities and significantly contribute toward the creation of a sustainable, commercially owned-and-operated space robotics enterprise. DARPA has issued a Request for Information (RFI) (http://go.usa.gov/yBdJ) seeking technical, security and business insights to support the agency’s pursuit of these goals.

“We’re asking the space community to think hard about how they want the future of space operations to look and how GEO robotics could help,” said Gordon Roesler, DARPA program manager. “Their insights are essential as we take the first concrete steps toward viable satellite-servicing capabilities in GEO. If we’re successful, we will significantly accelerate development of a capacity to maximize the utility of current space infrastructure and enhance the capabilities of future systems.”

The RFI invites input in two primary areas:

1. Technical characteristics for a robotic servicer that would integrate DARPA-developed space robotics technologies into commercially available spacecraft designed for GEO. Building on DARPA’s Phoenix program and more than a decade of the agency’s other investments in space robotics, the jointly developed GEO robotic servicer would support a variety of multi-year on-orbit missions, including:

  • Cooperative inspection of functional spacecraft that may have experienced anomalies while operating in GEO
  • Cooperative correction of mechanical problems, such as solar array and antenna deployment malfunctions
  • Cooperative assistance with orbit change maneuvers, including relocation or transfer to disposal orbit

2. Business arrangements and practices that would best facilitate a commercial spacecraft servicing enterprise that is long-lived and self-sustaining, and would achieve the greatest value for U.S. national and economic security. DARPA envisions that a non-traditional acquisition instrument may be appropriate to establish this partnership. DARPA wishes to consider creative solutions in this domain and thus desires industry input for structuring the commercial partnership solicitation.

“Creating a public-private partnership is an innovative way to ensure that GEO robotic servicing gets community buy-in to succeed long term,” Roesler said. Moreover, he said, a public-private partnership would support the White House’s National Security Space Strategy of 2011, which states, “Strategic partnerships with commercial firms will be pursued in areas that both stabilize costs and improve the resilience of space architectures on which we rely.”

DARPA is aware of current industry-led servicing development efforts, particularly those aiming to enable on-orbit refueling and satellite life extension. The agency welcomes information on possible early-opportunity collaborations or partnerships involving such missions, including technology demonstration and maturation, data sharing, or testing.

DARPA anticipates that responders may fall into one of three general categories: hardware/software developers (e.g., spacecraft providers and ground system developers); satellite servicing organizations; and service clients, such as commercial communications satellite operators. Responders should describe how their organizational capabilities and past experience with any of the following areas would contribute to the success of the program:

  • Spacecraft development, integration, testing and on-orbit operations
  • On-orbit servicing technology development and/or business case analysis
  • Robotics technologies, including hardware (sensors, actuators, etc.) and software (control, teleoperations, etc.)
  • Satellite fleet ownership, operation and management

Responses are due November 3, 2014 to DARPA-SN-14-51@darpa.mil by 12:00 PM Eastern Time. All technical and administrative correspondence and questions regarding this announcement and how to respond should be sent to DARPA-SN-14-51@darpa.mil.

Associated images posted on www.darpa.mil and video posted at www.youtube.com/darpatv may be reused according to the terms of the DARPA User Agreement, available here: http://go.usa.gov/nYr.