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DARPA robotic servicing program has become stalled
by Launchspace Staff Writers
Bethesda MD (SPX) Mar 07, 2017

File image.

DARPA has been developing a program that will leverage successes in space robotics in order to accelerate in-orbit servicing of satellites. Of particular interest are the satellites that populate the geosynchronous orbit at about 36,000 km above Earth. There are hundreds of these vehicles that operate as military, civil and commercial satellite assets.

However, once launched, there is no way to inspect or service them. Each of these satellites has a value in excess of tens of millions of dollars, and some are far more expensive. Most of these satellites are stuffed with backup systems and extra propellants in order to assure operational lifetimes that justify their original costs. Of course, redundancy means more mass and cost. If they were serviceable, these spacecraft could be more efficiently designed at lower costs.

In order to demonstrate this possibility DARPA has initiated a new program, "Robotic Servicing of Geosynchronous Satellites" (RSGS) which is intended to help the required technology advance toward operational servicing vehicles. DARPA already has a modular toolkit which includes servicing hardware and software. However, there is as yet no spacecraft bus that could be joined with the toolkit. So, DARPA has been pursuing private bus providers as part of a program.

In effect, DARPA is willing to contribute the robotics technology to a commercially owned and operated robotic servicing vehicle (RSV). DARPA has even offered to provide the launch for a demonstration mission. Under this program a commercial partner would contribute the satellite bus, integrate the robotic payload and carry out mission operations.

Just last month DARPA selected Space Systems Loral (SSL) to be the commercial provider of the bus and operator of the servicing mission. However, there appears to be a snag in the works. The problem is that Orbital ATK claims it is building a system that competes directly with the DARPA initiative.

If this is true, DARPA could be in violation of U.S. National Space Policy stating "that the government not build or buy systems" that "preclude, discourage or compete" with commercial systems. Subsequently, Orbital threatened a lawsuit. DARPA did argue that the program does not violate National Space Policy.

But, Orbital did not agree and proceeded to file a suit in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, claiming the suit is "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."

Note that SSL is owned by a Canadian Corporation, MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates Ltd.

Orbital claims to have invested at least $100 million in a similar system, called the "Orbital Mission Extension Vehicle" (MEV). In addition, last April, Orbital announced that Intelsat would buy the first such system. Based on this, it appears Orbital and DARPA may be in for a long battle.

Robot uses social feedback to fetch objects intelligently
Providence RI (SPX) Mar 07, 2017
If someone asks you to hand them a wrench from a table full of different sized wrenches, you'd probably pause and ask, "which one?" Robotics researchers from Brown University have now developed an algorithm that lets robots do the same thing - ask for clarification when they're not sure what a person wants. The research, which will be presented this spring at the International Conference o ... read more

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