DARPA’s Futuristic—and Litigious—Robotics Program

An artist rendering of robotic arms servicing a commercial satellite in Geosynchronous Earth Orbit. DARPA illustration.

Despite a Feb. 7 lawsuit from Orbital ATK, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) announced last week a partnership with Space System Loral for its Robotic Servicing of Geosynchronous Satellites program.

According to DARPA’s Feb. 9 announcement, the partnership is “an important step toward a new era of advanced, cost-effective robotic capabilities in space.” The RSGS program looks at the possibility of using robots to inspect and serve satellites in space, “20,000 miles above the Earth.” If and when such technology is deployed, it would “open the door” to risk and cost reduction in what DARPA calls the “harsh and difficult-to-access domain that is critically important for both military and civilian space assets.”

DARPA’s selection of SSL and its pending agreement have been submitted to DOD’s undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology, and logistics—a position currently vacant but handled by James MacStravic—for review

According to court records, Orbital ATK’s lawsuit claims the DARPA/SSL agreement—valued at $15 million according to The Washington Post—violates federal space policy.

“DARPA unlawfully intends to waste hundreds of millions of US taxpayer dollars to develop robotic satellite servicing technology …,” the lawsuit reads. “DARPA’s program is in direct violation of multiple provisions of the 2010 National Space Policy…”

According to the aforementioned space policy, agencies will “Refrain from conducting United States Government space activities that preclude, discourage, or compete with US commercial space activities, unless required by national security or public safety.”

SSL, though headquartered in Silicon Valley, is a subsidiary of MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates (MDA), a publ?icly traded, Canadian firm.

“The US National Space Policy explicitly directs government agencies to avoid funding activities that are already in development in the commercial marketplace,” Orbital ATK said in a statement to the Washington Post. “Orbital ATK will continue to pursue all available options to oppose DARPA from moving forward with this illegal and wasteful use of US taxpayer dollars.”

However, according to Brad Tousley, director of DARPA’s tactical technology office and the one overseeing the RSGS program, the program’s aims are precisely aligned with national security. Tousley said in a release the capabilities that are designed to come out of the agreement are “critical to national security and not currently available or anticipated to be offered commercially in the near term.”

In an email to Air Force Magazine, DARPA declined to comment on the lawsuit or its effects on the DARPA/SSL agreement, though a spokesperson did say “we are moving forward.”

The exact robotic capabilities RSGS is planning for satellites are, according to DARPA:

  • High-resolution inspection
  • Correction of some types of mechanical anomalies, such as solar array and antenna deployment malfunctions
  • Assistance with relocation and other orbital maneuvers
  • Installation of attachable payloads, enabling upgrades or entirely new capabilities for existing assets
  • Refueling

“Servicing on orbit could provide significant cost savings compared to current practices and a major advantage to the security of both commercial and government space assets,” said Gordon Roesler, DARPA’s program manager for RSGS, in the release. “In addition to inspection and repair, RSGS robotics promise a new era in which satellite upgrades and enhancements at GEO are no longer just a dream.”