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Orbital ATK sues DARPA over robotic satellite-servicing program

February 7, 2017 (Photo Credit: DARPA)
WASHINGTON — Orbital ATK on Tuesday filed a lawsuit against the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, asserting that the agency’s robotic satellite-servicing program violates national space policy.

The legal challenge, filed through the U.S. District Court for the Easter District of Virginia, threatens to unravel DARPA’s Robotic Servicing of Geosynchronous Satellites program. RSGS aims to create a robot capable of installing new payloads, correcting small anomalies, inspecting and moving geosynchronous satellites in orbit about 20,000 miles from the Earth.

Under the public-private partnership envisioned by DARPA, an industry partner would eventually be able to profit from RSGS by offering robotic satellite servicing to commercial and government entities. Meanwhile, the government would be able to buy those services at a reduced price.

But Orbital ATK says that the program violates the National Space Policy, which states that the government should not subsidize space-related activities that private entities are willing to invest in on their own. The company has been developing its own servicing vehicle, the Mission Extension Vehicle, has already booked Intelsat as its first customer and is set for a 2018 launch.

“The U.S. National Space Policy explicitly directs government agencies to avoid funding activities that are already in development in the commercial marketplace,” the company said in a statement. “Orbital ATK will continue to pursue all available options to oppose DARPA from moving forward with this illegal and wasteful use of U.S. taxpayer dollars.”

DARPA declined to comment on pending legal action, but has been adamant that its program does not flout U.S. space policy. In a Feb. 3 letter to Rep. Jim Bridenstine, R-Okla., DARPA acting director Steven Walker said the agency had conducted a review of the program, as requested by the lawmaker.

“We believe the program is consistent with the 2010 National Space policy,” Walker wrote.

In a separate Feb. 3 letter to Rep. Derek Kilmer, D-Wash., Walker defended the program’s development strategy.

“In the two years prior to issuing the RSGS solicitation, DARPA conducted market analysis of various nascent satellite servicing initiatives, none of which exist today, and concluded that no company proposed to develop a dexterous robotic capability that would enable the close inspection, repair and installation functions that DARPA intends to demonstrate with RSGS,” he said.

During that time, DARPA had “extensive communications” with aerospace companies including Orbital ATK, he added.

The market for satellite-servicing robots is wide and growing. There are currently more than 300 commercial satellites and about 120 government satellites in geosynchronous orbit. On any given year, about 75 satellites are three years within the end of their fuel life, even as they remain electronically viable, an industry source told Defense News.

The winner of the RSGS program will be responsible for integrating DARPA-developed robotic arms and software with a spacecraft, which will be launched at the government’s expense. The spacecraft, mission operations center and staff would be paid for and operated by the RSGS industry partner.

That puts Orbital ATK at a disadvantage, the company alleges in the complaint. Orbital ATK has already invested more than $200 million on its MEV. Because RSGS development is funded by both the government and a commercial entity, the winner of the competition may be able to charge significantly less for the same service.

“DARPA’s proposal will effectively use taxpayer funds to establish one company in a dominant position over all other competition,” Orbital ATK stated in its complaint.

“DARPA will provide hundreds of millions of dollars of services and equipment to a single competitor, in turn providing that competitor with an insurmountable taxpayer funding subsidy that will unfairly and unnecessarily harm any other company’s development of private on-orbit robotic servicing technology.”

A source from Orbital ATK said the company made several suggestions to DARPA that would have ameliorated its concerns, such as forgoing a launch and offering its robotic hardware to all companies, or to test the RSGS system without an industry partner.

“At this point we’re looking for the program to be restructured to make it fair,” he said.

DARPA’s Walker has maintained that budding commercial technologies like Orbital ATK’s MEV do not have the same functionality the agency is trying to achieve with RSGS.

“Current commercial solutions in development will address only the relocation function,” not the ability to install new payloads, conduct inspections and conduct repairs of mechanisms like solar arrays and apertures, he wrote in the letter to Kilmer.

Orbital ATK has disputed this. MEV-1 will be capable of relocating satellites and administer some inspections, but the company plans to upgrade later vehicles with modifications that will allow it to attach new payloads and remove stuck appendages, according to an industry source.

Growing congressional concern

Not only does the RSGS program face legal pressure from industry, it also has been subject to increasing congressional scrutiny.

Defense News broke the news in January that numerous lawmakers had called for a timeout on the RSGS program. Reps. Jim Bridenstine, of Oklahoma; Barbara Comstock, of Virginia; and Rob Bishop, of Utah, called on Acting DARPA Director Steven Walker to “stop any further action on RSGS.”

California Rep. Duncan Hunter, who sits on the House Armed Services Committee, also wrote a letter to Walker and Deputy Defense Secretary Bob Work expressing concerns that the RSGS program replicated NASA’s Restore-L program.

Since then, it appears two other letters regarding the program have been sent from Capitol Hill to the Pentagon. Kilmer and several other House lawmakers — Reps. Andy Biggs, of Arizona; Donald Beyer, of Virginia; Pete Aguilar, of California; and Scott Peters, of California — wrote a Jan. 31 letter asking for additional information about RSGS.

Comstock, Bishop and Biggs also penned a second, more antagonistic letter in response to Walker’s first response. In it, the lawmakers said they were “alarmed” that the DARPA program is proceeding despite congressional objections and reiterate a call for the agency to pause the program.

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