The race for space robots: public vs private sector

A DARPA project to develop a robot for satellite servicing in space has come under fire over claims that it violates national space policy guidelines that discourage public competition with commercial space activities. Lawmakers in the US have asked DARPA to halt the programme arguing that it spoils the business case for commercial satellite servicing offerings from companies including Orbital ATK. Claire Apthorp looks at DARPA’s programme, and ask whether US space policy guidelines are holding back innovation instead of encouraging public-private sector cooperation.


In February DARPA announced that it had selected Space Systems Loral (SSL) as its commercial partner for the Robotic Servicing of Geosynchronous Satellites (RSGS) programme. Together, the partners will develop technologies designed to enable cooperative inspection and servicing of satellites in geosynchronous orbit (GEO), more than 20,000 miles above the Earth. These technologies will then be demonstrated, and if successful, will open the door to radically lowering the risks and costs of operating in GEO.

GEO is critically important for both military and civilian space assets. It is home to hundreds of military, government and commercial satellites that provide communications, intelligence and meteorological services. Unfortunately, it is also a harsh and difficult-to-access domain that is so remote that with current technology it is impossible to carry out inspection, diagnostics, repairs or upgrades to satellites, making malfunctioning or obsolete satellites and their payloads a very expensive write-off for their owners.

The RSGS programme aims to deal with this issue by developing new technologies, including a DARPA-developed modular toolkit (hardware and software) that will be carried by a spacecraft and will be developed by SSL for the remote servicing of satellites and their payloads in orbit. The vehicle launch will be government-funded and SSL will provide a missions operations centre and staff for an on-orbit demonstration.

Under the contract issued to SSL, development costs and responsibilities will be shared under a public-private partnership with the goal of saving US taxpayers money by having commercial partners invest in projects rather than solely receiving government funding. If the demonstration is a success, SSL will operate the vehicle and make cooperative servicing available to military and commercial GEO owners on a fee-for-service basis. The US Government, in exchange for providing property for the project, will receive access to the service at a lower cost and access to commercial satellite servicing data throughout the operational life of the robotic servicing vehicle (RSV).

Space logistics

Sounds great, right? Well, not if you’ve had your eye on this market sector for some time.

Which is exactly what Orbital ATK has been doing. The company’s Space Logistics subsidiary has developed its Mission Extension Vehicle (MEV) for this exact market sector: to provide cooperative in-orbit satellite life extension and manoeuvring services to geosynchronous satellite operators by docking with customers’ existing satellites and providing the propulsion and attitude control needed to extend their service lives.

The company’s goal is to establish a fleet of MEV based satellite-servicing vehicles in GEO that can address servicing need, including fluid and gas replenishment, inspection and repair, replacement and enhancement of parts, and incorporation of auxiliary propulsion, navigation, power, payloads and other functions to enhance the performance or extend the satellite's life. They will also be able to capture and recover derelict satellites and carry out in-orbit robotic assembly of space structures.

In 2016, having announced Intelsat has the first customer for its life extension service with operations to begin in 2019, company officials were optimistically looking toward future agreements with government clients following Defense Department interest in its service pending the establishment of the service for commercial clients. However, DARPA’s plans to team with a single industrial partner for its RSGS programme has put a dampener on Orbital ATK’s plans, so much so that the company launched a lawsuit to block DARPA’s teaming with SSL, arguing that by doing so government funding will be channelled into a project that directly discourages industry competition in the market and benefits the recipient company solely.

National space policy

Orbital ATK is not the only organisation to have doubts as to whether the RSGS programme is in the best interests of US taxpayers and industry. In a January 2017 letter to the acting director of DARPA, three members of the House of Representatives claimed that the programme is “duplicating commercial investment and capability in violation of National Space Policy and [is] contrary to the best interest of taxpayers".

"The National Space Policy directs government agencies to “energise competitive domestic industries to participate in global markets”."

The National Space Policy directs government agencies to “energise competitive domestic industries to participate in global markets” by developing government space systems ”only when it is in the national interest and there is no suitable, cost-effective US commercial, or… foreign commercial service or system that is or will be available”, and refraining from conducting space activities that “preclude, discourage or compete with US commercial space activities, unless required by national security or public safety”.

DARPA’s current plan for RSGS appears to be conflict with these provisions, as it will benefit a single private operator to the tune of $200m –in addition to giving it the right to retain both the satellite and associated IP. As the letter said, ”this could dramatically disrupt normal market conditions in the emerging in-space satellite servicing sector and undermine current and future private investment in this type of advanced technology”.

Under review

Faced with this kick-back, DARPA said in a 9 February press release that, given that the RSGS public-private effort with SSL will be a first for the agency in the space-servicing domain, its selection of SSL and the pending agreement have been submitted for review by the Defense Department’s Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics.

The acting director of DARPA, Steven Walker, has defended the programme, claiming that in its own review DARPA believes the programme to be consistent with the 2010 National Space policy, and that the route taken with the RSGS programme had been prompted by a pre-solicitation market analysis that concluded that no company was proposing to develop a capability that would enable the specific functions the agency is seeking under RSGS.

Whatever the outcome of the Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics review, it is an interesting time for an interesting sector. Space logistics is in its infancy and there is likely to remain scope for private industry players to eke out a niche for themselves for maintaining and repairing satellites and payloads, particularly as the satellite communications market is currently booming as users look for cheaper alternatives to government-provided services.