Mission Robotic Vehicle: SpaceLogistic's 'space mechanic' satellite one step closer to launch

Developed by DARPA and Northrop Grumman's SpaceLogistics division, the "Mission Robotic Vehicle," aka "space mechanic" spacecraft, has completed some vital testing.
Christopher McFadden
Artist's impression of the "mechanic" satellite.


The United States Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and Northrop Grumman’s SpaceLogistics have announced the successful ground testing of their new "mechanic satellite", known as a Mission Robotic Vehicle (MRV)

The spacecraft features specialist robotic arms that will enable it to roam around Earth orbit physically, repairing ailing satellites on demand. This successful testing is critical for the new satellites' scheduled deployment in space by 2025.

The US Naval Research Laboratory, funded by DARPA, is developing a robotic payload for the Robotic Servicing of Geosynchronous Satellites (RSGS) program. This includes two advanced robotic arms, various robotic tools, navigation cameras, and accompanying software.

The "mechanic sat" is nearing launch readiness

“We completed environmental testing… of our second robotic arm system. …We also finished flight qualification testing of our flight software suite that controls and operates the payload. And we finished performance testing on our robotics testbed," program manager Bill Vincent told Breaking Defense.

Vincent also described how the advanced robotic arms are a significant improvement over the Canadarm used by astronauts on the International Space Station (ISS). For example, these new arms are designed to operate autonomously and perform missions such as inspection, orbital adjustment, repair, and upgrade on spacecraft that were not meant to be grappled. Due to this, the system requires a significant amount of software and algorithms in addition to the newly developed hardware.

“All of the avionics and all of the electronics and all of the software and algorithms that are needed actually to execute that mission go well beyond what anybody’s arm does,” he said. After completing all ground tests, DARPA will provide the payload for free to SpaceLogistics.

SpaceLogistics will then attach it to their spacecraft, known as the Mission Robotic Vehicle (MRV), which was solely developed using company funds. Additionally, SpaceLogistics is responsible for funding the launch of a SpaceX Falcon 9. The MRV will perform a series of tests on the robotic arm for DARPA as part of the RSGS mission. The MRV is being developed to remain in orbit for a decade and move around in space to perform subsequent repair tasks.

Commercial and military clients

In 2026, MRV will embark on its initial missions to install "propulsion jet packs" – Mission Extension Pods – onto commercial satellites. Customers who purchase these pods will have control over them, which contain electronic propulsion engines. A typical 4,409-pound (2,000-kilogram) satellite in a geosynchronous orbit can benefit from a six-year life extension, as reported by SpaceLogistics.

Although DARPA does not financially back the pods through the RSGS program, their operations will be a practical demonstration for both DARPA and the Space Force. This is because the company's necessary capabilities for commercial clients heavily align with the military requirements. The military will also benefit from this overlap.