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US DOD’s thrust on in-space robotics for automated on orbit robotic satellite servicing for space security

Building and launching Satellites are costly business.  Making a satellite can cost from  $290 million upwards, while a single satellite launch can range in cost from a low of about $50 million to a high of about $400 million.  Any fault could lead to making billion dollar useless  and has to be replaced, which is both difficult and extremely expensive.

The new paradigm  in-space assembly (ISA) is emerging which  shall enable  routine spacecraft assembly, refurbishment, repair and upgrade and cost effective emplacement of space systems that are operationally versatile.  NASA is developing e robotic satellites, known as “service stations in orbit,”  that would not only refuel satellites, they could drastically improve their longevity and lifespan. The robots could fix minor maintenance issues, keeping up with current orbiters as they age and sustain damage.

In-space-assembly is also being advanced by US DOD to enhance space security.  DOD is trying to enhance the space security of their assets  is developing capability to manipulate, service and assemble satellites on orbit by using highly capable robotics and end effectors.

These automated agents shall enhance operational performance as they shall be capable of  integrating new technologies into satellites like improved sensors  or countermeasures against adversaries space weapons. They could also expand or reconfigure capability to meet user or mission needs.  Assets can be refuelled to extend operational life and repairing or refurbishing systems in response to system degradation.

“We are striving to change the paradigm of satellite operations. Our Robotic Servicing of Geosynchronous Satellites (RSGS) program is developing a system to inspect, repair, relocate, and upgrade satellites in geosynchronous orbit to extend their mission lifetimes,” said Dr. Steven Walker, DARPA Deputy Director, at the Transition Ceremony for the Space Surveillance Telescope.

DARPA is having even more ambitious plan to  design , assemble and build satellites in space to replace  satellites due to space weapons. The space is being weaponized through development of  ground based missiles that are able to target LEO satellites as well as space based killer satellites. DARPA  is enhancing space security by  devising new ways to design satellites via cellularization, faster tempo to get the “cells” and/or low mass material to orbit, and assembling using the cell based modules or satlets. DARPA is also looking into means of outfitting launch vehicles with pods that could deliver the satlets, satellites, and robotic repair probes into GEO. The first orbital tests for the satlet and pod technology are expected in the next year or two. This robotic on-orbit servicing technologies, combined with on-orbit assembling technologies shall allow shaping future space system architectures.

Orbital ATK Begins Assembly of Its On-Orbit Servicing System

Orbital ATK announced that its Mission Extension Vehicle-1 (MEV 1) spacecraft successfully completed its critical design review earlier this year and is now in production, with about 75 percent of the platform and payload components already delivered to the company’s satellite manufacturing facility in Virginia. The spacecraft will begin system-level testing in spring 2018 with launch planned late next year. MEV 1 will provide satellite life extension services to its anchor customer, Intelsat, beginning in early 2019.

Orbital ATK will introduce on-orbit commercial satellite servicing with MEV 1, which is based on the company’s GEOStar spacecraft platform. Controlled by the company’s satellite operations team, the MEV 1 uses a docking system that attaches to existing features on a customer’s satellite. The MEV 1 then provides life-extending services by taking over the orbit maintenance and attitude control functions of the client’s spacecraft. The vehicle has a 15‑year design life with the ability to perform numerous dockings and repositionings during its life span.

Orbital ATK’s longer-range plan is to establish a fleet of on-orbit servicing vehicles that can address diverse space logistics needs including repair, assembly, refueling and in-space transportation. In addition to its commercial life extension services, the company is working closely with U.S. government agencies to develop key technologies to support these services, such as advanced robotics and high-power solar-electric propulsion.


NASA’s Restore-L Mission to Refuel Landsat 7, Demonstrate Crosscutting Technologies

Current commercial satellite systems are inflexible assets whose capability is defined during early purchase negotiations and becomes fixed at launch. Launch vehicle constraints on payload launch mass and volume severely limit resulting operational performance. A new deployment paradigm is needed for space operations to separate the operational spacecraft configuration from the constraints of the launch vehicle.

NASA’s Restore-L mission aims to launch a robotic spacecraft in 2020, called Restore-L servicer that shall be able to rendezvous with, grasp, refuel, and relocate a client spacecraft.“Restore-L effectively breaks the paradigm of one-and-done spacecraft” said Frank Cepollina, associate director of Goddard’s Satellite Servicing Capabilities Office, and former leader of the shuttle servicing missions to Hubble. “It introduces new ways to robotically manage, upgrade and prolong the lifespans of our costly orbiting national assets,” Cepollina said in a NASA press release. “By doing so, Restore-L opens up expanded options for more resilient, efficient and cost-effective operations in space.”

NASA announced Dec. 5 2016 that Space Systems/Loral, a U.S.-based satellite manufacturer owned by Canada’s MDA Corp., will build the Restore-L mission’s satellite bus. The contract is worth up to $127 million, NASA said, but that could represent just part of MDA’s contribution to the mission.

The robot arms in development to fly on Restore-L is similar to arms flown on NASA’s Mars rovers — a “combination of in-house NASA expertise and technology, and the best from industry,” said Benjamin Reed, deputy project manager at NASA’s Satellite Servicing Capabilities Office at Goddard.

Space System/Loral’s spacecraft design will provide power, communications and propulsion for the Restore-L mission.

NASA’s Restore-L mission aims to launch a robotic spacecraft in 2020, called Restore-L servicer that shall be able to rendezvous with, grasp, refuel, and relocate a client spacecraft. The current candidate client for this venture is Landsat 7, a government-owned satellite in low-Earth orbit.

Benjamin Reed, deputy project manager for the NASA office, explained: “With robotic servicing on the table, satellite owners can extend the lifespan of satellites that are running low on fuel, reaping additional years of service – and revenue – from their initial investment. If a solar array or a communications antenna fails to deploy, a servicer with inspection cameras and the right repair tools could help recover the asset that otherwise would have been lost. The loss of an anticipated revenue or data stream can be devastating.”

Future candidate applications for individual Restore-L technologies include on-orbit manufacturing and assembly, propellant depots, observatory servicing, and orbital debris management. Besides servicing other spacecraft, NASA is also directly applying several Restore-L technologies to the Asteroid Redirect Mission. NASA is also using Restore-L to test various technologies for future missions to Mars and farther locations.

Restore-L technologies include an autonomous relative navigation system with supporting avionics, and dexterous robotic arms and software. The suite is completed by a tool drive that supports a collection of sophisticated robotic tools for robotic spacecraft refueling, and a propellant transfer system that delivers measured amounts of fuel at the proper temperature, rate, and pressure.


Missouri University’s professor developing Robotic Inspection microsatellite for Air Force

Dr. Hank Pernicka, associate professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at Missouri S&T, is developing a microsatellite imager that could be used to check satellites, do small repairs or refuel spacecraft — and keep astronauts from making risky exploratory missions when something goes wrong. Pernicka and his team are working for Delivery to the Air Force is in the spring of 2017.

The spacecraft is composed of two microsatellites, with MRS SAT docked to MR SAT during the launch to the space station. After reaching the orbit the spacecraft is released from the shuttle, which then gets separated into two satellites. MR SAT, then use its 12 micro-thrusters to maintain a 10-meter distance from the MRS SAT and then starts orbiting and taking pictures of “her” with “his” two stereoscopic lenses.

Made of machined aluminum, it weighs less than 100 pounds when fully assembled. Both parts are covered in solar panels to provide power to electrical systems, and MR SAT has a fuel tank filled with R-134a propellant found in car air conditioners or the HVAC system in a home. The tank is about the size of a 2-liter bottle of soda, only slimmer.

“It has applications for many things,” Pernicka says. “It can check for damages, such as those that doomed the space shuttle Columbia.” “It could check on the status of spy satellites, fix components that have gone out of alignment on a spacecraft and check for debris,” he says.

An orbital facility staffed entirely by remotely-operated probes could maintain, upgrade and resupply the satellites, boosting the lifespan of commercial communications and military spy satellites while cutting down on space junk.


DARPA’s Robotic Servicing of Geosynchronous Satellites (RSGS) program

Space Systems Loral (SSL),  announced it has received $20.7 million from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to design and build robotic arm flight hardware for the agency’s Robotic Servicing of Geosynchronous Satellites (RSGS) program. The contract is for two complete robotic arm systems, which would be able to carefully capture and berth with satellites that were not previously designed for docking. The robotic arms would each have multiple joints enabling dexterous movement and could carry and use multiple generic and mission-specific tools.

“The ability to safely and cooperatively service satellites in GEO would expand public and private opportunities in space. It could enable entirely new spacecraft designs and operations, including on-orbit assembly and maintenance, which could lower construction and deployment costs while extending satellite utility, resilience and reliability,” said Al Tadros, vice president, Civil and DOD Business at SSL.

DARPA had issued a Request for Information (RFI) Last year, calling on commercial and private space groups to partner with them to accomplish a robotic servicing mission anywhere in Geostationary Earth Orbit, within the next five years. According to DARPA, GEO orbit contains the largest concentration of unserviced high-value satellites, 1,300 satellites worth over $300B and many of them perform critical economic and defense roles. 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. The goal of the RSGS program is to cooperatively inspect, capture, reposition, repair, and upgrade GEO spacecraft.

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 RFI addressed the critical technologies for assembling in orbit, including the development of space robotics, to be able to inspect spacecraft that had operational problems, fix mechanical problems like antenna issues, or even might be able to move satellites into other orbits.

A key element will a dexterous robotic arm DARPA has developed called FREND, which has multiple joints and is designed to connect with vessels that aren’t built for docking. DARPA said it plans to add advanced machine-vision algorithms that will allow for supervised robotic operations.”(DARPA’s arm has) interesting characteristics, like robot reflexes and compliance control to greatly minimize the risk of debris from inadvertent collisions,” said Melroy, now deputy director of the agency’s Tactical Technology Office.

The robotic payload consists of a pair of 2 meter, 7-Degree of Freedom (DoF) robotic arms with tool changers, a suite of tools, control systems (including electronics, software, machine vision and control algorithms), cameras and lights, a payload power distribution system, high resolution imaging sensors, rendezvous and proximity operations sensors, and a single 3-4 meter robotic inspection arm with up to 9-DoF. A third FREND arm might replace the robotic inspection arm.

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.

“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

“Right now, we don’t build satellites to be serviced, but once we have that capability, then you can start seeing things like modular, serviceable satellites that become routine,” said Melroy, deputy director of DARPA’s Tactical Technology Office. The robotic platform is one of three concepts that comprise the DARPA Phoenix program.

But these efforts all face a major roadblock: the lack of clear, widely accepted technical and safety standards for responsible performance of on-orbit activities involving commercial satellites, including rendezvous and proximity operations (RPO) that don’t involve physical contact with satellites and robotic servicing operations that would. Without these standards, the long-term sustainability of outer space operations is potentially at risk, says DARPA.

DARPA’s Consortium for Execution of Rendezvous and Servicing Operations (CONFERS) program aims to help overcome these challenges and provide the foundation for a new commercial repertoire of robust space-based capabilities. CONFERS envisions a permanent, self-sustaining, and independent forum where industry could collaborate and engage with the U.S. Government about on-orbit servicing. This industry/government forum would be composed of experts from throughout the space community. DARPA, primarily in partnership with NASA, will bring decades of operational experience from government missions to the consortium.


DARPA Phoenix program

DARPA through its Phoenix program has set out to develop and demonstrate the technologies that make it possible to inspect and robotically service cooperative space systems in GEO and to validate new satellite assembly architectures, according to DARPA’s website. It had endeavored to develop a new architecture of space systems where full satellite functionality is achieved by aggregating multiple satlets or ‘miniature satellites’ to enhance modularity and enable high volume low cost manufacturing.

The primary objective was to demonstrate the ability to upgrade or create new space systems at greatly reduced cost, and support DoD mission needs in a new way that increases tempo, allowing a much faster response to new challenges.

The three pillars of developing this capability are devising a new way to design satellites via cellularization, faster tempo to get the “cells” and/or low mass material to orbit, and ways to manipulate and assemble satellites on orbit by using highly capable robotics and end effectors handling and assembling using the cell based modules or satlets.

“Satlets idea in which production-line-possible satellite components weighing about 15 pounds (7 kilograms) each could be assembled in space. Looking much like Legos, the components encapsulate such satellite aspects as power, sensors and thermal management capacity. They could be assembled in different ways to accommodate different missions,” said Melroy, who as a NASA astronaut.


NovaWurks Prepares Self Assembling Spacecraft for LEO Demonstration

NovaWurks, a U.S. company that provides high-tech space products and services, is embarking on the demonstration phase of its new modular satellite design set to aid the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s (DARPA) Phoenix program, which aims to scavenge and reuse parts from obsolete spacecraft already in orbit. NovaWurks technology seeks to enable key on-orbit capabilities, including assembly, repair, asset life extension, refueling and more.

NovaWurks’ spacecraft, known as Hyper-Integrated Satlets (HISats), draw on areas of biology and engineering in order to create a new low-cost, modular satellite architecture that can scale almost infinitely. The HISats are small independent modules that weigh roughly 15 pounds each and incorporate essential satellite functionality, such as power supplies, movement controls and sensors, among others. The operating system software would be able to aggregate all the modules together on the orbit.

“The HISat is a single unit, cellular in nature — like an embryonic human cell — that works to differentiate itself on demand. In this differentiation it can become whatever tool it needs to become in [the on-orbit] junkyard. In this way you can put them into use and then assign each HISat specific tasks or functions once they are in place,” said Jaeger.

The company is using the HISats to demonstrate the ability to rapidly design, build and support payloads of any size and weight. The scalability of the HISat design means that when building a satellite, operators no longer have to adapt to the needs of a spacecraft, cutting back on non-recurring aspects of getting payloads on board and making it more cost-effective to launch a satellite, according to Jaeger.

“If you have an unknown payload that you need to fly, we can wrap it, conform to it and launch it rapidly,” Jaeger explained. “So, instead of a single-commodity bus, you have a variable commodity bus that can scale to the needs of the users on both the launch side and the payload side. That changes the game. It means you don’t always have to modify something or create it from scratch,” said Jaeger.

“We can do that because these cells can be attached to rocket launch interfaces and payloads and then, when they are released, can support entire missions because they understand space, how to work together, and how to support payloads at a very low cost and ease of design and capability.”

The company is now in Phase 3 of the program and launched an independent demonstration of the HISat systems onboard the International Space Station (ISS) in December. Next, the company is preparing to take the HISats to flight in Low Earth Orbit (LEO) this summer. NovaWurks is scheduled to demonstrate the technology in GEO in mid-2017.

“This is going to open the door for people to not only do the missions they are doing today, but also do the missions they couldn’t even conceive of before,” said Jaeger. “We believe a cellular design allows you to be robust, resilient and survive all sorts of unique challenges that are presented to people as we expand into space, and this design, architecture and hardware allows us to begin getting down that path.”


DARPA Phoenix Program Releases Payload Orbital Delivery (POD) Interface Requirements

Another Phoenix approach is a Payload Orbital Delivery (POD) system that would standardize satellites and/or their components to take advantage of hosted payload opportunities offered by commercial satellites. The payloads would be about 1.3 feet by 1.6 feet by 2.2 feet and weigh between approximately 150 and 220 pounds, and would use a standard interface to attach the POD to the host satellite and release it at the proper orbit.

Launches of satellites for the Department of Defense (DoD) or other government agencies often cost hundreds of millions of dollars each and require scheduling years in advance for one of the handful of available slots at the nation’s limited number of launch locations. This slow, expensive process is causing a bottleneck in placing essential space assets in orbit, especially in geosynchronous Earth orbit (GEO) approximately 22,000 miles (36,000 kilometers) above the Earth.

Launches of commercial communications satellites, on the other hand, are relatively frequent and inexpensive. Commercial launch vehicles also often have unused carrying capacity that their operators can offer to other satellite owners through “hosted payload” services. Unfortunately, no technology currently exists to enable government and military satellites to share rides and separate themselves from commercial communications satellites headed to GEO.

PODs are designed to help take advantage of the frequency of commercial satellite launches and associated hosted payload service opportunities to enable faster and lower-cost delivery of payloads to GEO.

Launch on Demand

DARPA soon will begin testing of its Airborne Launch Assist Space Access (ALASA), new satellite launch vehicle concept designed by Phantom Works Advanced Space Exploration that would lead to more affordable and responsive space access compared to current military and U.S. commercial launch operations.

The 24-foot (7.3-meter) ALASA vehicle is designed to attach under an F-15E aircraft. Once the airplane reaches approximately 40,000 feet, it would release the ALASA vehicle. The vehicle would then fire its engines and launch into low-Earth orbit to deploy one or more microsatellites weighing up to a total of 100 pounds (45 kilograms). Because the vehicle can avoid the dense air near earth, smaller rocket can deploy satellites into space.

It is aimed to provide launch at demand at 24 hours’ notice and reducing the costs to US$1 million per launch.



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