In-space satellite servicing has been a long-standing goal for both those who own and operate Earth orbiting spacecraft, as well as those who have dreamed of developing business models based on servicing them. In the past, the latter was often represented by various NASA factions, with in-space satellite repair being a major talking point in the early days of the Shuttle program. While Shuttle based repair missions first saved and then extended the life of the Hubble Space Telescope, as well as that of the Solar Maximum satellite, it was always going to be a very limited capability due to the simple fact that the Shuttle could not reach the orbits occupied by most satellites, and even it could, the costs would wildly exceed the benefits.
The answer of course, was robotics, but what happens when both a governmental agency and a private corporation simultaneously pursue similar plans for addressing the same market? A lawsuit of course.
Breakingdefense.com reports that one of the nation’s largest aerospace companies, Orbital ATK, has filed a lawsuit against DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency, in order to prevent it from pursuing a program called Robotic Servicing of Geosynchronous Satellites (RSGS), which the agency was apparently going to award to a competitor.
“DARPA drafted a contract to award the RSGS contract to Space Systems Loral. The contract announcement was mistakenly posted very briefly Monday night. I and other reporters agreed to hold the news pending DARPA working out what it said were last minute kinks with the deal. Then Orbital filed its lawsuit.”
The reason is that Orbital ATK is developing its own system called the Mission Extension Vehicle, which would dock with satellites nearing the end of their operational lives and extend them through re-boost and provision of maneuvering capability.
What is particularly interesting about the lawsuit, which is based on a provision of National Space Policy forbidding the government from developing systems which “preclude, discourage or compete” with commercial systems, is that as new commercial space ventures begin to emerge, it could be a harbinger of things to come. And a courtroom is poor substitute for the final frontier.