Orbital ATK sues DARPA over its satellite repair program


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Orbital ATK has filed a lawsuit against the Defense Department’s DARPA division over its satellite repair program that is apparently going to award a contract to a Canadian company to develop a system for using robots to repair orbiting satellites.

Orbital argues that the federal program, called the Robotic Servicing of Geosynchronous Satellites, would unfairly compete with its own privately funded effort, a system called the Mission Extension Vehicle 1, backed by at least $200 million from investors. The company has set up at a production facility in Northern Virginia, with a launch planned for next year.

DARPA wants to build out a government-funded program of its own, and is close to awarding a contract to a company that Orbital views as a competitor. In a contract announcement briefly posted on the agency’s website, DARPA said it is awarding a $15 million contract to Space Systems/Loral (SSL), a U.S. subsidiary of Canadian aerospace firm MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates. DARPA spokesman Jared B. Adams said the contract award was posted in error and elements of the deal are still being worked on.

In its lawsuit, Orbital alleges that the contract violates federal policy against creating government space programs that compete with existing commercial ones. “The U.S. National Space Policy explicitly directs government agencies to avoid funding activities that are already in development in the commercial marketplace,” the company said in a statement. “Orbital ATK will continue to pursue all available options to oppose DARPA from moving forward with this illegal and wasteful use of U.S. taxpayer dollars.”

DARPA normally pushes projects that no one is doing, either because the work is too experimental or can’t yet make a profit. In this case however it appears that this is not the case. Worse (from a political perspective), they are awarding the contract to a non-American company. I would not be surprised if Congress soon steps in and shuts this particular DARPA project down.

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