The idea of satellites and other spacecraft being able to refuel, repair or even add new capabilities while in orbit has generally seemed like a "nice in theory" one, but as leaders from Maxar, Astroscale and Orbit Fab explained at TC Sessions: Space, 2021 will be the year that theory becomes reality — or at the very least, realistic.
Once they go up, satellites are generally considered fixed assets that only depreciate, become obsolete or reach the end of their fuel supply and inevitably deorbit. But with a bit of coordination many of these phenomenally expensive spacecraft could have their lives extended in a number of ways, and considering the costs involved in lofting a new one, the prospect may be an attractive one.
"Launch costs are going down, but also launch frequency, the cadence in which things are being sent up into space is also going up," pointed out Lucy Condakchian, GM of robotics at Maxar Technologies . "So if you can launch smaller subsystems payloads and whatnot, and then be able to assemble things in space, maybe change out a certain aspect of what that satellite is doing... Why can't we go up and actually change out a power subsystem, change out a camera mechanism, a computing element, whatever the case may be?"
That's what Maxar and NASA will be demonstrating next year with OSAM-1, formerly called Restore-L, in which a spacecraft will attempt to service, assemble and manufacture items (hence the name) while on orbit.
"Just being able to demonstrate something in space shows that we can do that, proves the point of 'Yes, it is possible,' and hopefully it opens up much further opportunities down the road," said Condakchian. The company's robotic arms for Martian landers have shown their versatility, as well, and there's no reason to think that satellite arms won't be as broadly useful.
While Maxar is aiming to equip future spacecraft, Ron Lopez, president of Astroscale US (the original company is Japan-based), sees an opportunity in today's aging space infrastructure.
"There are a lot of companies that are developing on orbit inspection services. That's for the satellites that are already out there that don't have those robotic capabilities, or can't afford to have them in the future when the product owner-operator decides not to put them on," he explained.
"There's any number of different use cases for this kind of capability," he continued. "Insurance claims if there's an anomaly on a satellite, and it needs to be determined what it was that happened, etc., or space situational awareness. Of course, we know that this is a big concern for everybody with the increasing number of objects in space, understanding what's where, doing what and is it a threat to other objects in space, is very important."
Astroscale, which recently raised a $51 million Series E, is about to launch a mission in just a few months that will demonstrate orbital debris detection and removal. That doesn't mean spare screws dropped by ISS spacewalks — more likely dead satellites that have been left to drift and deorbit on their own time, which could be years from now. All they need is a little push and low-Earth orbit is that much safer and cleaner.
Daniel Faber, CEO and founder of Orbit Fab, wants to prevent that situation from occurring in the first place by building what he calls "gas stations in space." It's a bit different from the terrestrial ones, closer perhaps to in-flight refueling of jets, but you get the idea.
"The future that Orbit Fab sees is a fully cooperative and bustling in space economy, we don't think that that can be achieved by relying on robotics on every spacecraft, there's always going to be a need for tow trucks, there's always going to be a need for complex robotic servicing when things go wrong, and things break down. And right now, nothing has been designed to be serviced. So you need a tow truck for any of these type of things," he said.
"We failed to build a satellite gas tanker because we couldn't find the fueling port. So we built one," he said, referring to the company's RAFTI connector, which dozens of partners are now looking at including in their spacecraft. "We've had to develop other products and technologies as well to make refueling accessible to our customers."
The tanker will have its first orbit tests — you guessed it, next year. A recently announced investment, bringing their seed total to $6 million, should help make that happen. 2021 is looking to be a big one for many areas of space, but in this particular sector it will be the moment where the capability is proven out, perhaps leading to a major expansion the following year.
That was just a fraction of what we talked about on the panel. If you missed it live, don't worry -- Extra Crunch subscribers get access to all the on-stage content from TC Sessions: Space and every other event as well. Sign up here.