Recent technological advances have made the longstanding dream of on-orbit robotic servicing of satellites a near-term possibility. The potential advantages of that unprecedented capability are enormous. Instead of designing their satellites to accommodate the harsh reality that, once launched, their investments could never be repaired or upgraded, satellite owners could use robotic vehicles to physically inspect, assist, and modify their on-orbit assets. That could significantly lower construction and deployment costs while dramatically extending satellite utility, resilience, and reliability.
In fact, efforts to achieve the goal of on-orbit servicing are already underway, including DARPA’s Robotic Servicing of Geosynchronous Satellite (RSGS) program, which focuses on services for satellites in geosynchronous orbit. But these efforts all face a major roadblock: the lack of clear, widely accepted technical and safety standards for responsible performance of on-orbit activities involving commercial satellites, including rendezvous and proximity operations (RPO) that don’t involve physical contact with satellites and robotic servicing operations that would. Without these standards, the long-term sustainability of outer space operations is potentially at risk.
DARPA’s Consortium for Execution of Rendezvous and Servicing Operations (CONFERS) program aims to help overcome these challenges and provide the foundation for a new commercial repertoire of robust space-based capabilities. CONFERS envisions a permanent, self-sustaining, and independent forum where industry could collaborate and engage with the U.S. Government about on-orbit servicing. This industry/government forum would be composed of experts from throughout the space community. DARPA, primarily in partnership with NASA, will bring decades of operational experience from government missions to the consortium.
Participants would leverage best practices from government and industry to research, develop, and publish non-binding, consensus-derived technical and safety standards that servicing providers and clients for on-orbit servicing operations would adopt. In doing so, the program would provide a clear technical basis for definitions and expectations of responsible behavior in outer space. The standards would be broad enough to allow individual companies to pursue their own implementations of these standards to suit their individual businesses, while assuring that the implementations adhere to best practices for operational safety.
DARPA aims to transfer CONFERS leadership and funding to industry by 2021, when the Agency is scheduled to perform its first on-orbit demonstration of RSGS. The Agency also intends by that time to release the standards for general use by commercial on-orbit servicing organizations.
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