The U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has been funding a program to service satellites in geostationary orbit. NASA has a similar program for low Earth orbit. Operating separately, the two agencies have funded preliminary work by satellite builder Space Systems/Loral. Meanwhile, Orbital ATK has been largely self-financing its Mission Extension Vehicle to refuel aging but otherwise healthy satellites in geostationary orbit. It has a contract with Intelsat to debut the service in 2018 and booked a commercial launch. Orbital says DARPA’s work is in direct competition with what Orbital is doing and as such violates U.S. national space policy. It’s asking a U.S. district court to stop work on the DARPA program. Credit: DARPA
The lawsuit is the latest iteration of a recurring debate in the space sector: How far should government go in developing commercially useful technology at a time when commercial companies — some aspirational, some operational — are building business that do the same things?
Role reversal from missiles-to-launchers debate
Ironically, Orbital ATK has recently been on the other side of the debate, arguing for the conversion, by Orbital, of excess U.S. ballistic missiles into space-launch vehicles. Startup commercial launch-service companies, including Virgin Galactic, oppose this and also oppose the use by U.S. commercial satellite owners of India’s PSLV rocket.
Recently the Space Angels Network of venture capitalists said it supported Virgin and other new commercial-launch vehicles in banning the commercial use of ballistic missiles.
In its lawsuit, filed with the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, Dulles, Virginia-based Orbital says the imminent U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) contract with Loral is the latest indication that DARPA intends to proceed with a program that uses U.S. taxpayer monies to compete with the private sector — in this case, Orbital.
Orbital is developing its own satellite-servicing system, called the Mission Extension Vehicle (MEV), which is under contract with satellite fleet operator Intelsat to refuel one or more Intelsat satellites in geostationary orbit.
Orbital has contracted with International Launch Services, the U.S. company that commercializes Russia’s Proton rocket, for a 2018 launch into geostationary transfer orbit.
Orbital says it has committed to spend “up to $200 million” on the MEV project.
It says DARPA’s Feb. 6 decision to award the Robotic Servicing of Geosynchronous Satellites (RSGS) contract to Palo Alto, California-based Loral — which Orbital points out is owned by Canada’s MDA Corp. — left it with no choice but to seek a permanent injunction against DARPA’s project.
Orbital has long argued that RSGS violates U.S. national space policy by injecting public funds into a technology being developed by the private sector. DARPA has responded that RSGS has much wider aims than refueling satellites in orbit and extends to a host of robotic maintenance and repair tasks.
No business case beyond in-orbit refueling
But Orbital says DARPA has never demonstrated that any other U.S. government agency is ready to pay for sophisticated satellite in-orbit maintenance.
“As Orbital ATK has repeatedly explained to DARPA, satellite life extension is the only existing commercial need sufficient to justify the business case,” Orbital says in its court filing.
DARPA’s RSGS, like NASA’s Restore-L program — the overlap of the DARPA and NASA programs has also been a subject of debate — are intended to test servicing technologies in low Earth orbit.
Space Systems Loral in July 2016 won a $20.7 million contract with DARPA to design robotic arms for RSGS, and in December NASA awarded the company a contract to provide the satellite bus for Restore-L. NASA said the contract’s total maximum value was $127 million.
Orbital says the DARPA contract will give Loral “hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars in subsidized technology and mission costs,” putting Orbital’s MEV at a clear disadvantage.
The lawsuit recounts what Orbital says have been multiple efforts, including a letter to DARPA from Orbital ATK Chief Executive David W. Thompson, to sit down with DARPA and resolve the dispute.
“At no time has Orbital ATK ever received from DARPA a substantive response to its objections,” Orbital’s lawsuit says.
Orbital: Anything RSGS can do, MEV can do sooner
The company says that while its MEV’s business case relies almost exclusively on refueling satellites in geostationary orbit, the inaugural mission in 2018 for Intelsat nonetheless meets six of DARPA’s nine stated RSGS program objectives.
The remaining three objectives are being met by NASA’s Restore-L program and will also be met by the fourth and fifth MEV launches, tentatively scheduled to occur by 2021 — before the first RSGS mission.