Government Leading the Way to On-Orbit Servicing

There’s a recurrent stereotype about the private sector and government. The private sector takes risks and innovates, while the government is very conservative and risk averse. However, when it comes to development of space robotic capabilities the reverse holds true.  Commercial industry has had difficulty closing a business plan when it comes to extending the life of and repairing valuable space assets. In this area of on-orbit servicing, the government is the leader while the private sector lags behind.

Within both NASA and DARPA, robotic programs are being implemented that will fundamentally change how the industry thinks about satellites and the boundaries of satellite life. This new technology could eventually allow servicing and lifetime extension of existing satellites, and even allow for the collection of orbital debris that threatens manned and unmanned spacecraft.

In an excellent piece published in Space News, reporter Mike Gruss provides a thorough update of the progress made via DARPA’s Phoenix program. DARPA is now in the process of winnowing down a list of possible demonstration satellites to ten, in order to demonstrate the feasibility of on-orbit servicing.  As a test case, DARPA will repurpose a satellite antenna from a decommissioned spacecraft in the “graveyard” orbit some 200 miles beyond the geosynchronous arc.

With the cost of new satellites soaring and space debris reaching dangerous levels, on-orbit servicing seems like an extremely logical and economical avenue to pursue. So one might ask why the government is taking the lead here, rather than the private sector.

Despite the clear advantages, there are five main reasons satellite operators have yet to embrace on-orbit servicing:

  • Owner operators and the U.S. government would rather build new satellites with the latest technology and additional capabilities than depend on extending the life of older spacecraft.
  • In today’s world of shrinking budgets that put funding for expensive satellite programs in the crosshairs for cancellation, the arrival of an option (life extension) which could provide justification for delaying a new project and saving money is actually seen as a threat, not as a benefit.
  • Owner/operators think servicing places space assets into “harm’s way” and creates risk of accidental collision resulting in orbital debris – possibly creating liability issues.
  • Owner/operators are not confident that servicing can be conducted without causing attitude transients or other problems which would cause satellite services to be disrupted.
  • The windfall benefit of an on-orbit servicer would be to deal with immediate spacecraft anomalies when they do occur (such as a stuck antenna) or a satellite left with insufficient propellant remaining after recovery from a sub-standard launch-vehicle drop off.  Since the absolute benefit (and thus return on investment) could be impossible to determine ahead of time, commercial companies consider the investment too risky.

All of these potential issues can be addressed and none of them prevent the development of servicing vehicles.  On-orbit servicing holds great promise and will provide great benefit for the commercial space industry. Rather than just sit on the sidelines and watch, private industry needs to support the efforts underway.   Both DARPA and NASA will be asking commercial industry for assistance – possibly to use one of their retired satellites or just to provide technical information.  When they knock on the door, industry should be cooperative in sharing information.

Commercial satellite operators expect a certain return on the substantial investment required to build and launch satellites and then lease transponder capacity to customers for the 15-year life of the spacecraft. Perhaps if the business case for satellite life extension was built into this equation, the operators would settle for a slightly lower return on investment. And having satellites last longer might justify the expense of underwriting satellite servicing technology. The industry should not just sit on the sidelines because if we do, we will miss the opportunity to prove the viability of this important new space technology.  We will also miss the future windfall benefits when that same servicer is required to save the day for one of our own disabled satellites.

For additional information please review our white paper, Rationale for Need of In-Orbit Servicing Capabilities for GEO Spacecraft, presented at the AIAA 2013 Conference.

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