DARPA signs agreement with SSL in spite of Orbital ATK law suit

DARPA decided to sign agreement with SSL covering continuing program of creating jointly robotic space vehicle able to service satellites remaining on orbit.

It is important step for recovering many government satellites remaining on orbit. Joint effort of SSL developing satellite bus and DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) with advanced work on payload entered into another phase. Both organizations will create satellite able to refuel, perform service actions or help in orbit change for satellites remaining on orbit.

Cooperation between DARPA and SSL is rather oriented to creating satellite for typically military and strictly governmental purposes and not completely focused on commercial purposes already caused some controversies. First among others was question about economic sense of establishing separate program by DARPA, while already NASA and several private companies started similar projects. One company with particularly most advanced project of service satellite was Orbital ATK, which in fact started such program in 2010. Their Mission Extension Vehicle (MEV) was based on the GEOStar 3 bus and already was contracted to perform first mission in 2018 and perform service action to one from Intelsat satellites. It is advanced program and surely Orbital ATK was not quite satisfied, that DARPA decided to sign agreement with SSL (owned by Canadian  MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates) offering far less advanced solution comparing to MEV. Orbital ATK decided even to form lawsuit against DARPA accusing Agency for lack of economic management and the detriment of American space industry. Lawsuit was formed in February 2017 and first trial is scheduled for 5th May 2017, but probably Orbital ATK has small chance to win. DARPA as research Agency can freely decide about purposes and general directions of development of different projects lead by Agency are not restricted by any law.

It could be considered as quite strange, that DARPA doubles commercial programs, not to mention about existing NASA project called Restore-L. But when we take a deeper look on DARPA we will see, that this is rather kind of tradition. To remind, X-37 space plane is utilized by U.S. Air Force since 2010 and was in fact project developed by Boeing and DARPA before it was given to military. DARPA is at the moment developing XS-1 space plane (in the cooperation with Boeing and Northrop) which seems to be similar to Dream Chaser designed by Sierra Nevada Corporation. Dream Chaser was already selected to be used under CRS-2 resupply missions program in future. It seems that it could be easily adopted by DARPA, what would be far less expensive than XS-1 project. in spite of this fact DARPA is continuing development of XS-1. Why ? Probably it is caused by the desire to maintain sustainable development of concepts, which are expensive and has limited number of commercial purposes, or their development is commercially pointless. From the point of view of DARPA not everything should be economically motivated, sometimes long term goals are more important than financial benefits. Boosting projects like XS-1 or service satellite DARPA can test technologies rejected by companies because of their cost or rejected by NASA due the limited possibilities of civilian usage. NASA as civilian agency is simply officially not allowed to test military technologies. DARPA as military focused agency can spent their budget on such concepts and give developed projects to Military, like it was with X-37 in the past.  In case of service satellite, this project is important, because Military is operating number of expensive satellites, which are currently reaching end of their service life due the reaching end of propellant or minor technical issues. They could be easily bring to life with service satellite; using separate military service robotic vehicle will help in servicing secret military satellites without engaging civilian personnel, which would be impossible to avoid with commercial contractors.

On picture above: prototype arm of service satellite.