DARPA awards MDA subsidiary space robot bid despite Orbital ATK lawsuit (update)
U.S. aerospace company Orbital ATK says DARPA’s robotic satellite repair program (RSGS) unfairly completes with its commercial MEV-1 program.
The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) announced yesterday that it has awarded MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates (MDA) subsidiary Space Systems/Loral (SSL) a US$20 million contract to develop a spacecraft that will carry a satellite servicing robot. The contract is part of the U.S. military R&D agency’s Robotic Servicing of Geosynchronous Satellites (RSGS) program designed to reposition, repair and refuel government and commercial satellites.
Earlier this week, the Washington Post and other defence industry news outlets reported that Dulles, Virginia-based aerospace manufacturer, ATK Orbital had filed a lawsuit in U.S. federal court objecting to DARPA’s RSGS program. According to reports, Orbital ATK filed suit on Feb 7 alleging that U.S. defence R&D agency’s RSGS program violates U.S. space policy, which directs government entities to “refrain from conducting United States government activities that preclude, discourage, or compete with U.S. commercial space activities.”
In its complaint, ATK Orbital says the taxpayer-funded RSGS program would unfairly compete with ATK’s own privately funded Mission Extension Vehicle 1 (MEV-1). In addition, the company’s complaint contends that the RSGS program would give the resulting technology to a “foreign-owned company for its exclusive use.”
While ATK’s MEV-1 program would initially focus solely on propelling satellites low on orbit-sustaining fuel, the company says it foresees expanding the program to include satellite repair robotics and other functions that would fulfil DARPA’s program objectives. The company says the MEV-1 program secured its first customer, satellite fleet operator Intelsat, in April last year.
According to SpaceNews.com, the RSGS program has also recently faced U.S. congressional opposition of late. In late January, a mix of Democrat and Republican members of congress wrote to acting DARPA Director, Steven Walker, questioning the need for the RSGS program. In addition to ATK’s MEV-1, the congress people cited RSGS’ similarity to NASA’s Restore-L satellite repair program, which is also in development by SSL.
In response, DARPA’s Walker wrote that RSGS differs from Restore-L in that NASA’s program is intended for low earth orbit and is therefore less autonomous and dependent on ground control than RSGS. In addition, the DARPA director wrote that no existing or planned commercial program features the full capabilities of RSGS.
The standoff between MDA and ATK has been long in the making as the pair have a storied history. Orbital ATK was formed in a 2015 merger of Orbital Sciences Corporation and Alliant Techsystems Inc. (ATK). In 2008, ATK bought MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates (MDA) for CAD$1.3 billion, a sale that was subsequently blocked by the Canadian government.
At the time, MDA said it favoured the merger with ATK as it would give the Canadian aerospace company better access to U.S. aerospace contracts. Following the failed merger attempt with ATK, MDA took a different route to the U.S. market by purchasing the larger aerospace firm, Space Systems/Loral, in 2012 for US$875 million.