Boeing Phantom Works is to demonstrate robotic on-orbit satellite servicing under a US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) contract worth around $100 million.

Routine refuelling will allow satellites to be moved to adjust coverage or to avoid threats, while on-orbit upgrades promise to improve spacecraft effectiveness, says the agency.

Boeing was selected over BAE Systems and Spectrum Astro for the 42-month second phase of DARPA's Orbital Express programme, during which it plans to build the Autonomous Space Transport Robotic Operations satellite (ASTRO) and NextSat, a surrogate serviceable satellite.

The industry team, led by Boeing, will contribute around $13.5 million to the cost-sharing programme. The group includes Ball Aerospace and Technologies, Charles Stark Draper Laboratory, TRW Space and Technology, and Canada's MD Robotics.

Orbital Express is intended to demonstrate the technical feasibility and operational utility of autonomous on-orbit servicing. The programme involves development of an industry-standard servicing interface that can be used by any satellite manufacturer.

DARPA programme manager Maj James Shoemaker says robotic on-orbit servicing "has always looked good on paper, but has always been judged to have too high a technical risk and cost uncertainty".

The demonstration is intended to "provide real-world experience" to allow developers of future satellite systems "to make decisions which are based on facts rather than assumptions".

NASA, under its Space Launch Initiative (SLI), is planning to partner DARPA on the Orbital Express demonstration, which, it expects, will reduce the risks associated with autonomous on-orbit rendezvous.

The partnership is being sponsored by the SLI's Marshall Space Flight Center-led Alternate Access to Station project, which is looking for a means to re-supply the International Space Station using unmanned launch vehicles.

Source: Flight International