"The American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) is pleased to announce that the 2012 AIAA von Braun Award for Excellence in Space Program Management has been won by Maj. Gen. James B. Armor, U.S. Air Force (retired), AIAA Associate Fellow, and vice president, strategy and business development, ATK Space Systems Division, Beltsville, Md."
Marc's note: Coincidentally the current issue of Space Quarterly has an interview with Maj. Gen. Armor. Here's an excerpt. You can read the full interview by subscribing.
Satellite Servicing and Small Satellites - Coming of Age
Eva-Jane Lark interviews Jim Armor Major General (retired),
VP Strategy and Development, ATK Space Systems
Satellite servicing is starting to become a hot topic, with multiple strategies being developed. Can you tell us more about the approach/projects you are leading at ATK?
It is a hot topic indeed! We have a history here at ATK of supporting satellite servicing with NASA, for example, the Hubble Space Missions. We did all the astronaut tools, and much of the mission planning for the Hubble repair missions, here in Beltsville, Maryland. We are right next to Goddard Space Center. As you can imagine, there is a soft spot in our heart for satellite servicing. We've got a three prong approach going forward. With civil space, we are continuing with our engineering service support to NASA Goddard's satellite servicing programs. Today that is the RESTORE program run out of the Goddard Satellite Servicing Capabilities Office (SSCO) under Frank Cepollina. We are about a third of that program office with our engineers. RESTORE is designed to refuel a government satellite. I think they have targeted a NOAA GOES satellite.
The second leg is with the Department of Defense (DoD), in this case the DARPA program and its name is Phoenix. There is a large government and industry team pulling the pieces of the DARPA Phoenix program together, and we've been notified that we have been selected for providing the satellite bus. We've also been selected to provide a couple of the tools to be held by the end-effectors at the end of the robot arm. These include a grabber tool for grabbing things in space; and a cutter tool, the aperture grasp and separator tool - the AGST. We are also doing some systems engineering support as well. Phoenix is a pretty exciting mission as well.
The third leg of our ATK approach, after civil and DoD, is a purely commercial program. We have partnered with another firm, U.S. Space LLC, to create a new company called ViviSat. We are the mission prime for the ViviSat offering. ViviSat is designed around a mission extension vehicle (MEV), which is a straight forward little jet pack. It docks with commercial comsats and offers basic attitude control and propulsion. It's an electronic propulsion (EP) system. It's very simple and is designed, like the name suggests, for extending the life of commercial comsats that are out of fuel but that are otherwise operating fine.
How does what ATK is doing differ from what MacDonald Dettwiler (MDA) has proposed?
I don't know exactly what MacDonald Dettwiler's satellite servicing offer was, other than what I read in the newspapers over the last year. As far as I can determine at this point, they are not actively pushing that anymore. Now, on the Phoenix program, they have been selected by DARPA to provide the robot arm and I think a little bit of engineering support too. So we are partnered with MDA on the Phoenix mission. We are part of the same industry team working also with NASA and the Naval Research Lab for that mission. As is often the case in industry, we compete at one level and collaborate on others.
Are there other competitors in this "space"?
There are a lot of other industry players around the world that have what I would call "pieces of technology" than can contribute to satellite servicing missions. We are talking with many of them about what they might bring to the table on a commercial enterprise for satellite servicing. More details become proprietary... so I'll stop there.
Of course, we totally understand that.
Phoenix is often referred to as the Zombie sat project. How many dead satellites are there (approximately) in space that could be retrofitted to come back to life or scavenged for spare parts that could be used to help another satellite?
I have no idea how many dead satellites there are - quite a few, I suspect. Phoenix's baseline mission is not looking for a dead satellite as such but one that is just past its end of life. It would be still controllable so we don't have to go grab something that is completely cold and difficult to get hold of.
Antennas are frequently discussed with regards to Phoenix, that it involves detaching the antennas for reuse on other satellites to then fly in a kind of formation. Are the antennas that much more valuable than the satellites themselves?
It's not the price of the antenna, per se. It is building it and packaging it and launching it that is expensive. So if you didn't have to do that - and this is the theory that DARPA is pursuing - then you could grab a perfectly good aperture in space, an antenna, and connect it up with the guts of a satellite. DARPA calls them "satlets", and you could attach them to a harvested aperture and make it work. I think it is revolutionary, actually. If it catches on, future satellite designers could make it easier to separate parts on-orbit, either for active servicing or for post-life salvaging. If this is proven out, it really could be a paradigm shift.
Are there other parts that are especially useful?
That is hard to say, end-of-life solar arrays might be useful. David Barnhart at DARPA would be better to ask. He is in charge of the program.
Do you think future satellites will be built with on-orbit servicing in mind?
Well, I sure hope so. That's why we are seriously engaged in civil and military programs, and investing in commercial enterprises. We think there is a potential burgeoning market that would enable even more things to happen in space.
After Phoenix harvests the apertures, are there any plans to tow the dead satellite(s) out of GEO to a Lagrange point? To free up an orbital slot for reuse, for instance?
Not that I am aware of. The test case that DARPA is doing is going to a satellite that is near, but not in GEO. The geostationary belt is busy. You have to be extremely careful when you are trying major experiments like this not to disrupt ongoing activities in GEO. The Phoenix mission operation's design is not finalized yet. As far as towing to a Lagrange point, that sounds really cool, but I haven't heard anything along those lines.