The Pentagon is developing robots that can repair satellites in space, more than 20,000 miles above Earth.
The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency has chosen Space Systems Loral as a commercial partner for that program, which would build robots capable of inspecting and servicing geosynchronous Earth orbit satellites—that is, the government and commercial devices used for purposes like meteorology and national security.
Today, satellites launch with replacement parts in case of failure, which contributes to their weight and cost. In the next five years, DARPA wants a robot—already situated 22,000 miles above the Earth—to answer repair requests including inspections, correcting antenna relocation, and refueling.
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DARPA plans to build out a combination of hardware and software to form the backbone of the system; it would be installed in a privately built spacecraft. The end result would be a "commercially owned and operated robotic servicing vehicle (RSV) that could make house calls in space," Gordon Roesler, program manager for the project, wrote in a blog post.
DARPA and SSL will share costs for the program and is the first public-private program DARPA has operated for space-servicing, according to a press release.
SSL would eventually operate the robot, which would be available both to military and commercial satellites, the agreement outlines. SSL would charge a fee-for-service, though the government will receive reduced prices.
DARPA has also been looking for research about safety standards for robot servicing operations in space; except for the International Space Station and a few other low-Earth orbit systems, this program represents the first time spacecraft could be repaired or upgraded on orbit, according to DARPA.