The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is moving forward with its geostationary earth orbit (GEO) satellite servicing program despite a lawsuit that the Justice Department on Tuesday moved to dismiss.

Space Systems Loral (SSL) said Wednesday it signed and executed a contract with DARPA to develop advanced capabilities for servicing and maintaining spacecraft in GEO. The program is known as Robotic Servicing of Geostationary Satellites (RSGS) and intends to develop technologies that would enable cooperative inspection and servicing some 22,000 miles from earth and demonstrating these technologies on orbit within the next five years. SSL did not return a request for comment by press time Friday.

Artist's illustration of DARPA's proposed RSGS satellite. Photo: DARPA.
Artist’s illustration of DARPA’s proposed RSGS satellite. Photo: DARPA.

Orbital ATK’s [OA] lawsuit against the Pentagon was filed in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia. Orbital ATK is not happy with RSGS as it believes it already developed this technology and that RSGS violates the 2010 National Space Policy.

Orbital ATK said in February that it is already investing its own money to develop in-space satellite servicing that includes satellite life extension, to be followed by robotic in-space repair and assembly capabilities. An industry source told Defense Daily that Orbital ATK submitted a bid for RSGS

The Justice Department, in its motion to dismiss, argued the court lacks subject jurisdiction to reach the merits of Orbital ATK’s Administrative Procedure Act (APA) claims, that RSGS is soundly committed to agency discretion by law and that the National Space Policy of 2010 is simply a “managerial tool” for the executive branch and does not create a legal framework enforceable by the judiciary.

For its part, Orbital ATK in its complaint said that RSGS was unlawful and that it intended to give away its technology to a foreign-owned company for that company’s sole commercial use. Orbital ATK also argued that RSGS is in direct violation of multiple provisions of the 2010 National Space Policy and thus violated the APA.

Orbital ATK spokeswoman Sean Wilson said Wednesday the company proposes alternative paths for DARPA that includes funding development and in-space testing of RSGS technology as a purely government-owned and operated system without transferring ownership of the satellite to a single, subsidized company. Orbital ATK seems open to settling with the Justice Department as Wilson said the company believes there is a way to reform RSGS that would avoid costly litigation and would protect American jobs in the commercial space industry.

Orbital ATK hired Bernard DiMuro and Billy Ruhling from DiMuroGinsberg and Philip O’Beirne and Rebecca Anzidei from Stein Mitchell Cipollone Beato & Missner LLP to file its initial complaint. DARPA spokesman Jared Adams on Wednesday declined to comment as the case is being handled by the Justice Department on behalf of the Pentagon.

Michael Listner, principal with Space Law and Policy Solutions in New Hampshire, said Thursday the case will boil down to one issue: Whether the National Space Policy has the force of law and whether that authority can be adjudicated under the APA.

A number of lawmakers asked DARPA in February to pause RSGS to ensure its compliance with the 2010 National Space Policy. One of these was House Armed Services Committee member Jim Bridenstine (R-Okla.), who defended his intervention, but said he didn’t want to hold up the program because capabilities like robotic servicing and maintenance and refueling in orbit are critical capabilities to the United States that aren’t being provided commercially (Defense Daily, Feb. 9).

The Pentagon sometimes issues stop work orders to contractors when a program is contested via a bid protest or lawsuit. No one from the Pentagon answered repeated phone calls Friday in an attempt to find out why it didn’t issue a stop work order to SSL for RSGS.

SSL and Orbital ATK are involved in their own lawsuit as SSL sued the company in March, accusing it of stealing proprietary data related to the NASA Dragonfly project, which intends to eventually develop a satellite that can be launched into space in a compact, stowed state and then assemble itself once in orbit (Defense Daily, March 23).