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DARPA thinks it has the solution to satellite longevity

Spoiler: It involves servicing the spacecraft while they maintain orbit.

BlackJack3D via Getty Images

The government's mad science wing has an eye on lowering the cost and extending the lifespan of the geosynchronous Earth orbit satellites that follow our planet during its rotation. DARPA has proposed a system dubbed Robotic Servicing of Geosynchronous Satellites (RSGS if you're a fan of brevity) that'd essentially act as a lifeline for the satellites up above us. The program is still in its infancy but would "radically lower the risk and cost of operating in GEO," according to the firm.

The RSGS units sound like they'd cure a lot of issues plaguing current satellites. DARPA says that correcting "mission-ending mechanical anomalies" that include problems with how their solar arrays and antennas deploy are among those fixes. The system would also deliver new upgrades to antennas currently in space. It'd do so with a robotic arm that the agency is calling "FREND" that will be capable of swapping to whatever tools are needed for the task at hand. Additionally, it'd also be capable of machine vision and delivering "high-fidelity spatial orientation information" that's intrinsic to keeping the DARPA craft in orbit.

DARPA and the government would cover the cost of the launch, but after that it'd be up to the commercial service that needed the help to pick up the tab:

"Under the RSGS vision, a DARPA-developed modular toolkit, including hardware and software, would be joined to a privately developed spacecraft to create a commercially owned and operated robotic servicing vehicle (RSV) that could make house calls in space. DARPA would contribute the robotics technology, expertise, and a Government-provided launch.

The commercial partner would contribute the satellite to carry the robotic payload, integration of the payload onto it, and the mission operations center and staff. If successful, the joint effort could radically lower the risk and cost of operating in GEO."

Program manager Gordon Roesler says that this is the sort of thing that both commercial and government have been clamoring for for decades and that the RSGS initiative would address that need. When can we expect this to happen? That isn't clear yet as DARPA is still looking for the necessary commercial partner, but it estimates RSGS should be in place within five years time. For a better idea of what this would all look like, see the infographic below, or the video up above.

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