Unmanned Systems

Navy lab lends a FRENDly hand to robotic GEO satellite repair

Innovations don’t take place in a vacuum. Military researchers looking to find a way to upgrade or repair satellites in high-altitude orbit are getting help, both from industry and other military laboratories.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s program for reaching satellites in geosynchronous orbit—22,000 miles above the Earth—is enlisting industry input as part of a public-private endeavor that would serve military, government and commercial satellites. But it’s also getting help from the Naval Research Laboratory on a key element of the project—a dexterous robotic arm called FREND that would be used to engage and service the satellites.

ONR’s Naval Center for Space Technology, along with DARPA, has been working on FREND, or the Front-end Robotics Enabling Near-term Demonstration, since 2002, planning to field an on-orbit, unmanned satellite servicing vehicle billed to transform space operation at GEO to robotically inspect and autonomously grapple, reposition, repair and upgrade spacecraft. 

The Robotic Servicing of Geosynchronous Satellites program, or RSGS, will increase reliability and resilience of commercial and government satellite services, increasing their lifecycles, according to an NRL release.

“Our engineering team is extremely excited to be leading the government's payload development for this innovative program,” said Bill Vincent, program manager for RSGS at NRL. “NRL has a long history of developing revolutionary spacecraft to meet emerging national needs. Just as NRL's past developments led to the Global Positioning System, we look forward to having a similar role for on-orbit robotic servicing by helping develop the necessary high-risk payload technology and transitioning this technology to U.S. industry.”

Geosynchronous orbit (GEO) is an advantageous position for communications and weather monitoring, but is problematic for performing maintenance on satellites, unlike satellites in low-Earth orbit, some of which (like the Hubble telescope) have been serviced by space shuttle astronauts back when the shuttle was being flown.

Developments over the last 20 years in robotics control ground stations, spacecraft payload control electronics, and prototype spaceflight robotic arms that have undergone spaceflight qualification testing position DARPA’s RSGS to serve as a reliable servicing device. RSGS will provide unprecedented capabilities, providing “a robust and flexible foundation for transforming space logistics and operations in GEO for the future,” an NRL release stated.     

“NRL's expertise in spacecraft systems engineering makes it uniquely qualified to perform this task,” Vincent said. “NRL and DARPA are well on the way to having this mission's core technologies validated for spaceflight, and we look forward to working with a commercial partner to fully realize this capability on-orbit.”

About the Author

Mark Pomerleau is a former editorial fellow with GCN and Defense Systems.

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