Members of Congress Urge DARPA to Reconsider Satellite Servicing Program

Four members of Congress have sent letters to DARPA asking the defense agency to review a satellite servicing program they believe duplicates other efforts by a commercial company and NASA.

“We are concerned that DARPA’s Robotic Servicing of Geosynchronous Satellite (RSGS) program is duplicating commercial investment and capability in violation of National Space Policy and contrary to the best interests of taxpayers,” reads one letter signed by Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-OK), Rep. Rob Bishop (R-UT) and Rep. Barbara Comstock (R-VA).

“We urge you to promptly review this program to ensure its compliance with the 2010 National Space Policy,” the letter to DARPA Acting Director Stephen Walker reads. “As Acting Director, you should stop any further action on on RSGS until the review is completed.”

DARPA’s program aims at creating a spacecraft capable of moving a satellite to another location, upgrading components and correctly anomalies such as a stuck solar array.

Legislators are concerned that whichever company DARPA chooses as a partner will have an unfair advantage over companies investing their own funding to develop commercial alternatives. Under RSGS, DARPA is bearing most of the cost of the program.

Orbital ATK, which has facilities in the home states of Bishop and Comstock, is investing money into its own satellite servicing program. The company’s Mission Extension Vehicle (MEV) is designed to dock with a satellite and use on board propellant to extend the spacecraft’s orbital lifetime. Intelsat has agreed to be MEV’s first customer on a mission planned for 2018.

A DARPA spokesman told Washington Business Journal that its program is different from other satellite servicing programs being pursued by the private sector.

“Our acquisition approach has been extensively reviewed and verified within the Department of Defense for legality and consistency with space policy,” DARPA spokesman Jared Adams wrote to me in an email. “The robotic payload is high-risk, high-payoff technology.”

He said the agency’s technology would have three primary functions: repairing failed deployment mechanisms, installing new payloads and relocating space assets. “A robotic GEO-servicing capability that leverages this kind of technology and provides required functionality does not exist today and is not in development by the commercial sector,” Adams said.

Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-CA) wrote a separate letter to DARPA Acting Director Walker expressing his concerns that RSGS “duplicates much of the technical development funded for NASA’s Restore-L program, and inappropriately competes with commercial investment in satellite servicing by providing a DARPA-funded capability to a single commercial satellite service provider.”

The Restore-L mission involves sending a satellite to refuel the Landsat 7 remote sensing satellite in 2020. The servicing spacecraft is being built by Space Systems Loral of California.