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On-orbit satellite servicing and refueling may be on the horizon

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), initiated its Consortium for Execution of Rendezvous and Servicing Operations (CONFERS) program. The Secure World Foundation, along with the University of Southern California’s Space Engineering Research Center and the Space Infrastructure Foundation were selected to coordinate CONFERS, while Advanced Technology International was awarded a contract to manage the operation.

“Satellite servicing and related technologies are the foundation of the future economic development of space and delivering increased benefits from space to the world,” said Brian Weeden, director of program planning of the Secure World Foundation.

File photo: In the International Space Station s Destiny laboratory  Robonaut 2 is pictured during a...

File photo: In the International Space Station’s Destiny laboratory, Robonaut 2 is pictured during a round of testing for the first humanoid robot in space
NASA / File

Need for In-Orbit servicing
Literally, hundreds of millions of dollars are spent in the development and final launch of the school-bus-sized satellites that orbit the Earth, providing broadband Internet, broadcasting or military surveillance. However, if one of the thousands of parts breaks down or the satellite runs out of fuel, we have no way to send help.

So the DARPA project is significant in that it seeks to address the technical and safety standards for responsible performance of on-orbit activities of commercial satellites as well as government space operations because, without some sort of guidance, future sustainability of the industry could be put at risk.

Basically, there is no oversight in on-orbit servicing. By setting up CONFERS, DARPA envisions an independent forum where commercial and government entities can collaborate and engage in research about on-orbit servicing, as well as drive the creation of standards for service providers and clients.

The Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS) represents significant technological and scientific advances...

The Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS) represents significant technological and scientific advances in environmental monitoring . This is a front view of the JPSS-1.

The Federal Aviation Administration runs launch, the Federal Communications Commission oversees satellite communications, while the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) regulates Earth imaging. Right now, we have the technology to “approach, grasp, manipulate, modify, repair, refuel, integrate and build completely new platforms and spacecraft on orbit,” Weeden said. All that is lacking is widely accepted safety and technical standards, and that is what needs to be the focus of the consortium.

Broad participation from the space industry and government needed
CONFERS has their work cut out for them over the next 12 months. Groups such as satellite manufacturers, satellite operators, service providers, insurers and underwriters and other stakeholders need to be brought on board to revitalize a concept that DARPA first initiated almost 30 years ago — putting robot technicians into space to service satellites.

The emerging capability to finally conduct cooperative, fully robotic servicing operations on orbit stands poised to fundamentally transform the way that we build, operate and replace spacecraft — but we need to agree how to do it safely and responsibly,” said Todd Master, a program manager in DARPA’s Tactical Technology Office (TTO).

There are an estimated 170 million pieces of so-called

There are an estimated 170 million pieces of so-called “space junk” — left behind after missions that can be as big as spent rocket stages or as small as paint flakes — in orbit alongside some US$700 billion of space infrastructure
Handout, NASA/AFP

Recently, DARPA invested hundreds of millions of dollars in a public-private partnership with San Francisco-based Maxar Technologies’ Space Systems Loral (SSL). And while a mature market for these robotic repairmen is still 10 years away, one of the first such commercial robot technicians is set to launch next year.

“It’s an environment where you can’t make mistakes,” said Steve Oldham, senior vice president of strategic business development at SSL, a division of San Francisco-based Maxar Technologies that has such a project in the works. He admits the technologies will need to be fine-tuned to the point where the robotic workers are considered capable.

In the meantime, the number of operational satellites circling the Earth has increased from 994 in 2012 to over 1,400 today, according to a June report commissioned by the Satellite Industry Assn. trade group/

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