The traditional process of designing, developing, building and deploying space systems is long, expensive and complex. These difficulties apply especially to the increasing number of expensive, mission-critical satellites launched every year into geosynchronous Earth orbit (GEO), approximately 22,000 miles above the Earth. Unlike objects in low Earth orbit (LEO), such as the Hubble Space Telescope, satellites in GEO are essentially unreachable with current technology.
DARPA’s Phoenix program seeks to change this paradigm and reduce the cost of space-based systems by developing and demonstrating new satellite assembly architectures and delivery systems. Phoenix is currently focusing on two primary technical areas of research:
- Satlets: A new low-cost, modular satellite architecture that can scale almost infinitely. Satlets are small independent modules (roughly 15 pounds/7 kg) that incorporate essential satellite functionality (power supplies, movement controls, sensors, etc.). Satlets share data, power and thermal management capabilities. They also physically aggregate (attach together) in different combinations that would provide capabilities to accomplish a range of diverse space missions with any type, size or shape payload. Because they are modular, they can be produced on an assembly line at low cost and integrated very quickly with different payloads. DARPA is presently focused on validating the technical concept of satlets in LEO.
- Payload Orbital Delivery (POD) system: The POD is a standardized mechanism designed to safely carry a wide variety of separable mass elements to orbit—including payloads, satlets and electronics—aboard commercial communications satellites. This approach would take advantage of the tempo and “hosted payloads” services that commercial satellites now provide while enabling lower-cost delivery to GEO.
DARPA Phoenix program has already completed its first phase.
The program envisions numerous benefits, including:
Improved satellite usefulness, lifespan, resilience and reliability
Lower satellite construction and deployment costs
Hundreds of military, government and commercial satellites reside today in geosynchronous Earth orbit (GEO) some 22,000 miles (36,000 kilometers) above the Earth—a perch ideal for providing communications, meteorology and national security services, but one so remote as to preclude inspection and diagnosis of malfunctioning components, much less upgrades or repairs. Even fully functional satellites sometimes find their working lives cut short simply because they carry obsolete payloads—a frustrating situation for owners of assets worth hundreds of millions of dollars. With no prospects for assistance once in orbit, satellites destined for GEO today are loaded with backup systems and as much fuel as can be accommodated, adding to their complexity, weight and cost. But what if help was just a service call away?
DARPA’s new Robotic Servicing of Geosynchronous Satellites (RSGS) program intends to answer that question by developing technologies that would enable cooperative inspection and servicing in GEO and demonstrating those technologies on orbit within the next five years. Under the RSGS vision, a DARPA-developed modular toolkit, including hardware and software, would be joined to a privately developed spacecraft to create a commercially owned and operated robotic servicing vehicle (RSV) that could make house calls in space. DARPA would contribute the robotics technology, expertise, and a Government-provided launch. The commercial partner would contribute the satellite to carry the robotic payload, integration of the payload onto it, and the mission operations center and staff. If successful, the joint effort could radically lower the risk and cost of operating in GEO.
“The ability to safely and cooperatively service satellites in GEO would vastly expand public and private opportunities in space. It could enable entirely new spacecraft designs and operations, including on-orbit assembly and maintenance, which could dramatically lower construction and deployment costs while extending satellite utility, resilience and reliability,” said RSGS program manager Gordon Roesler. “Commercial and government space operators have sought this capability for decades. By investing together, we can achieve a capability that would be extremely challenging to do individually.”
To formalize that collaboration, DARPA aims to establish a public-private partnership through which the Agency would develop and provide technical capabilities for transition to a commercial space robotics enterprise that would make cooperative robotic servicing available to both military and commercial GEO satellite owners on a fee-for-service basis. DARPA seeks to engage a commercial partner with a strategic interest in this capability, and an interest in providing services to the Defense Department (DoD).
By executing the RSGS program, DARPA seeks to:
- Demonstrate in or near GEO that a robotic servicing vehicle can perform safe, reliable, useful and efficient operations, with the flexibility to adapt to a variety of on-orbit missions and conditions
- Demonstrate satellite servicing mission operations on operational GEO satellites in collaboration with commercial and U.S. Government spacecraft operators
- Support the development of a servicer spacecraft with sufficient propellant and payload robustness to enable dozens of missions over several years
- After a successful on-orbit demonstration of the robotic servicing vehicle, U.S. Government and commercial satellite operators would have ready access to diverse capabilities including high-resolution inspection; correction of some mission-ending mechanical anomalies, such as solar array and antenna deployment malfunctions; assistance with relocation and other orbital maneuvers; and installation of attachable payloads, enabling upgrades to existing assets. Satellite operators would be able to purchase these services on request to the robotic servicing vehicle operator.
A critical component of the RSV would be the robotic arm developed by DARPA known as FREND. Constructed to enable automated, cooperative connection to satellites that are not designed for docking, the FREND arm has multiple joints enabling dexterous movement and can carry and switch among multiple generic and mission-specific tools. DARPA will augment the arm by adding advanced algorithms for machine vision and supervised autonomous robotic operations. Also new will be onboard mission-planning software and a variety of sensors designed to provide reliable, high-fidelity spatial orientation information, essential for safely guiding the spacecraft with its robotic systems on orbit.
SOURCES- DARPA, Youtube
Brian Wang is a Futurist Thought Leader and a popular Science blogger with 1 million readers per month. His blog Nextbigfuture.com is ranked #1 Science News Blog. It covers many disruptive technology and trends including Space, Robotics, Artificial Intelligence, Medicine, Anti-aging Biotechnology, and Nanotechnology.
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