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DARPA's robot sat-fixing program survives sueball strike

Aerospace firm says there's no market for this stuff, wants to build it anyway

Aerospace company Orbital ATK has failed in a legal bid to halt a DARPA contract for robotic satellite maintenance devices and will instead see if the White House can help it to bring the work to the private sector.

The lawsuit centres around contracts awarded last year, after years of investigations, that would launch a test platform able to inspect geostationary satellites showing anomalies, help them make orbital adjustments, fix mechanical problems, and install upgrades.

When rival sat-builder Space Systems Loral won the contract in February this year, Orbital ATK launched its lawsuit in which it argued DARPA's Robotic Servicing of Geosynchronous Satellites program violated America's 2010 National Space Policy. It told the court the policy forbids government space research from competing with the private sector.

NASA and Orbital ATK have worked together on similar capabilities for low-earth orbit satellites. DARPA is interested in geostationary satellite work, because such orbits are well beyond the range of spacewalk technology.

In the legalese of its lawsuit, Orbital ATK alleged that “DARPA unlawfully intends to waste hundreds of millions of US taxpayer dollars to develop robotic servicing technology for which DARPA has admitted there is no present US government need and that NASA and the US Private Sector (sic) – specifically plaintiffs – are already developing”.

The company was also miffed that DARPA had awarded the robosat contract to a competitor, Space Systems Loral (SSL) which, although based in California, is owned by Canadian outfit MacDonald Dettwiler. The suit suggested that at the contract's conclusion, SSL would then have the technology for its “sole commercial use”.

In a ruling [PDF] handed down last Thursday, US District Judge Leonie Brinkema dismissed Orbital ATK's complaint on the basis that the 2010 National Space Policy doesn't have the force of law, meaning there was no basis for the lawsuit to proceed.

Orbital ATK told it would, instead, pursue remedies at the policy level, by making its case to the Department of Defense and the White House. ®

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