The U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (Darpa) has selected U.S. commercial satellite manufacturer Space Systems/Loral (SSL) to integrate flight hardware for a new capability designed to carry small science and technology missions to space on the company’s geostationary satellite platform.

Under the terms of the agreement, SSL is to help complete the design and integration of the first Payload Orbital Delivery (POD) system on its SSL 1300 platform, which would enable affordable delivery of small, free-flying spacecraft beyond low Earth orbit (LEO) for future servicing, operational, science and technology space missions.

As part of Darpa’s $180 million Phoenix mission slated for 2016, the agency plans to demonstrate that a robotic vehicle can remove an antenna from a defunct telecom spacecraft in graveyard orbit and attach small "satlet" modules to it to create a functioning satellite that can then be towed to geostationary orbit. The mass-produced satlet modules would be launched as piggyback payloads packed into PODs on commercial satellites in an effort to dramatically reduce the cost of satellite communications.

"Darpa’s vision and commitment to this capability could open the door to many other small satellite and in-orbit servicing missions, enabled by frequent access to space on the SSL 1300" and other geostationary platforms, SSL President John Celli said in a July 21 announcement.

SSL has experience putting small government payloads and missions on commercial spacecraft in an effort to reduce costs for both parties. The company plans to work with commercial fleet operators and government agencies to facilitate such an arrangement with the first implementation of the POD platform and for other future missions.