Maxar cancels its DARPA satellite servicing mission


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Capitalsm in space: Maxar today announced it is canceling its DARPA mission to develop and fly a robotic mission aimed at servicing geosynchronous satellites.

Maxar Technologies’ Space Systems Loral division terminated an agreement to build DARPA’s Robotic Servicing of Geosynchronous Satellites spacecraft Jan. 30, leading to a potential recompete of the program. Maxar said it also canceled a contract with Space Infrastructure Services, a company it created that would have commercialized the RSGS servicer after a DARPA demonstration, starting with an in-orbit refueling mission for fleet operator SES. Both were awarded in 2017.

…The cancellations come amid an ongoing divestment of SSL’s geostationary satellite manufacturing business, which has weighed down Maxar’s financial performance due to a protracted slump in commercial orders.

More background information can be found here.

It seems that the industry’s increasing shift from a few large geosynchronous satellites to small smallsats in low Earth orbit is the real cause of this decision. Maxar has realized that there won’t be that many satellites in the future to service, since the smallsat design doesn’t require it. Smallsats aren’t designed for long life. Instead, you send them them up in large numbers, frequently. Their small size and the arrival of smallsat rockets to do this makes this model far cheaper than launching expensive big geosynchronous satellites that are expected to last ten to fifteen years and would be worth repairing.

Thus, the business model for commercial robotic servicing has apparently vanished, from Maxar’s perspective. Other servicing projects however continue. From the second link:

Northrop Grumman said it plans to launch its first Mission Extension Vehicle to dock with Intelsat-901 and take over orbital station-keeping duties, extending the satellite’s service life by several more years.

Another up and coming player, Effective Space, is developing a satellite servicing vehicle called Space Drone, to provide satellite life extension services.

And SSL [a Maxar subdivision] is under contract to NASA to build the Restore-L satellite servicing spacecraft, slated to launch in 2020. Restore-L will be owned by NASA, however, and will operate in low Earth orbit, not the geosynchronous arc as was the plan for RSGS.

The last mission is intriguing because it could lay the groundwork for a robotic servicing mission to Hubble. It is being led by the same NASA division that ran all of the shuttle servicing missions to Hubble, and is using many of the engineering designs that division proposed when it was trying to sell a Hubble robot servicing mission back in 2004.

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