(Photo Credit: SSL). Geostationary communications satellites can be very large, creating launch constraints.
Commercial satellite builder Space Systems/Loral (SSL) has been awarded a contract from the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to study robotic assembly of geostationary communications satellites in orbit.
Called Dragonfly, the program is designed to enable very large satellites that cannot be launched fully assembled (because the completed satellite will not fit within a standard launch vehicle fairing), to be packaged and launched in pieces and then self-assembled from the stowed state by a robotic arm while in orbit.
The on-satellite robotic arm is expected to be a smaller version of MacDonald Dettwiler and Associates’ (MDA) Canadarm, a remote-controlled mechanical arm, also known as the Shuttle Remote Manipulator System (SRMS) that enjoyed a 30-year career with NASA's Space Shuttle Program. Canadarm2 is a bigger robotic arm currently in service on the International Space Station. MDA is the parent company of SSL.
The 5 month study aims at demonstrating how assembling satellites in orbit could lower satellite cost and mass, with particular focus on the installation and reconfiguration of large radio frequency (RF) antenna reflectors.
As part of this effort, SSL has submitted a proposal to NASA for collaboration on taking the concept to a ground demonstration followed by a flight application.
The Dragonfly project is an outgrowth of Darpa’s Phoenix program to demonstrate robotic servicing and repurposing of spacecraft in geostationary orbit (GEO). Dragonfly not only has the potential to transform the way satellites are built, but could also have positive impact on the service life of satellites. It will be easier to replace defective or broken parts of satellites that have been launched in modular pieces by different rockets, and then assembled in orbit. The robotic assembly element of the satellite could also be used for in orbit refueling to prolong the satellite’s operational life.