How can we get more out of what we put into space for longer?

The Aerospace Corporation
Aerospace TechBlog
Published in
6 min readOct 25, 2023
Space missions like NASA’s On-orbit Servicing, Assembly, and Manufacturing 1 (OSAM-1) will conduct in-space servicing, which involves two or more spacecraft engaging in activities that require rendezvous and proximity operations and in some instances docking. [Credit: NASA]

In-space Servicing, Assembly and Manufacturing (ISAM) has the potential to change how we develop the space ecosystem. ISAM is a collection of technology that can be used to learn more about Earth orbit, cislunar space, deep space and the surface of celestial bodies. These capabilities are rapidly taking shape during this time of growth in space and right now, Aerospace is continuing its work towards understanding and improving the scope of ISAM within the larger picture.

We spoke with Cristina Guidi, Principal Director for Aerospace’s Human Exploration and Space Flight (HESF) Division. Guidi is leading Aerospace’s support for NASA’s Consortium for Space Mobility and ISAM Capabilities (COSMIC), which aims to advance the nation’s capabilities for ISAM.

Guidi discusses her insights on the ISAM environment and introduces the upcoming COSMIC Kickoff Meeting Nov. 7–9.

Broadly speaking, can you give us a brief description of ISAM?

ISAM is a new capability replacing the current mission approach of building single, unique mission system with a finite lifespan with the capability to evolve existing in-space system to meet new mission challenges. ISAM enables spacecrafts to extend their mission lifetime as well as assemble complex structures and manufacture components without the need for human intervention thus opening the frontier for sustainable and evolvable ecosystems in space. With ISAM capabilities, mission capability is enhanced, costs are reduced, and operational efficiency is increased.

What are some examples of types of capabilities that are within the ISAM category?

There are three major categories for ISAM — Servicing, Assembly and Manufacturing.

Servicing includes refueling, repairing, upgrading, or replacing components of a legacy satellite.

Assembly is the integration or aggregation of separate piece parts into a simple or complex structure in space. Assembly capabilities enable much larger space system to be deployed.

And finally, manufacturing of components in space or on the surface of the moon using locally sourced materials instead of bringing all the supplies and individual parts at launch.

Given the current space environment, what is driving the increased attention for ISAM?

Today, everyone relies on space-based services, such as remote sensing for weather prediction to navigation using Global Positioning System (GPS) to satellite communications. These systems and others like them, had to be designed to launch with everything they needed for their entire mission. This approach can be very costly and very challenging because they had to be robust, reliable and resilient right out of the gate.

With the growing expectations on space architectures, the complexity of space-based systems will increase requiring a new way of designing and operating space systems. ISAM enables a much more agile approach with rapid incremental development, deployment and evolution of these systems to keep pace with emerging technologies. With the advancements of sophisticated automation and robotic capabilities, ISAM is now possible and will enable more innovative and complex systems that are adaptable to future technology evolution.

How does ISAM differ from the current approach to space mission? What kind of impact can ISAM capabilities have for advancing space architectures and mission lifecycles?

The adoption of ISAM capabilities in today’s spacecraft and space systems will be a significant shift towards focusing on sustainability rather than “one-off” system designs. For example, we do not dispose of our cars after they run out of gas. We refuel them.

Space vehicles are limited to how much propellant they can carry, and when the propellant is expended, the spacecraft’s mission is over. With refueling services available using ISAM capabilities, the spacecraft can be replenished with fuel and continue its mission. ISAM also enables incorporating new technologies and capabilities to space systems faster and space system life extension through repair and upgrade services. This takes a lot of the pressure off of having to pack everything into that first launch.

Makes sense. What kind of impact can this have on space architectures and mission lifecycles for the future?

ISAM also has the potential to transform future space architecture by providing innovative platforms and systems that can be assembled on orbit or on the surface of the moon and beyond. Currently, space architecture is limited to what can fit on a single rocket launch. By implementing ISAM assembly capabilities, modular components of a large structure can be launched separately and robotically assembled in space. A high-profile example of how ISAM capabilities enabled on-orbit assembly is the International Space Station (ISS) — a space structure the size of a football field. The 16 ISS pressurized modules were launched into space piece-by-piece and gradually built in orbit. This could not have been accomplished without designing the ISS with modularity and serviceability in mind. ISAM capabilities may open the door for constructing large telescopes and other platforms further away from Earth’s orbit that would otherwise be impossible.

A high-profile example of how ISAM capabilities enabled on-orbit assembly is the International Space Station (ISS), which was constructed with a modular approach. [Credit: NASA]

ISAM capabilities can also leverage 3D printing, or additive manufacturing technologies, to manufacture components in space. This means being able to deliver on-demand hardware without having to rely on Earth resupply and logistics.

What does the vision of an ideal future for ISAM and space look like?

A new generation of spacecraft designed specifically for ISAM would lead the charge towards an evolvable ecosystem enabling a sustained presence in space. Incorporating ISAM capabilities in space systems will require a paradigm shift in how they are designed. The ideal future for space systems is having the ability to regularly undergo on-orbit hardware upgrades to extend the mission lifecycle and improve performance by refreshing components with the latest technology.

The broader space community also benefits from incorporating ISAM capabilities because they promote a sustainable space ecosystem where the lifespan of a spacecraft can be extended through inspection, refuel, repair and upgrade capabilities which contribute to a greater return on investment.

Ultimately, ISAM can provide many game-changing benefits — enabling more speed, resilience and cost-effectiveness, to name a few — and has the potential to really alter the trajectory of what’s possible for space.

Incorporating ISAM capabilities, like Raven’s relative navigation as an example, in space systems will require a paradigm shift in how they are designed.

What role does COSMIC play in all of this?

COSMIC’s role is to drive towards a “whole-of-nation” approach to ISAM capability advancement, bringing together a broad range of stakeholders and partners to accomplish a shared vision. COSMIC facilitates collaborative relationships and coordination between U.S. government departments and agencies, universities, commercial companies, and nonprofit research institutions with the goal of accelerating wide-spread adoption of ISAM capabilities and encouraging missions to make ISAM a routine part of space architectures and mission lifecycles. COSMIC promotes U.S. leadership in ISAM technologies to change the business model away from single-use space assets.

COSMIC has made significant progress since its public announcement in April 2023 and has engaged with stakeholders across the space enterprise in over 60 briefings. The effort has received strong support for the vision of COSMIC from all.

What’s next for COSMIC? Can you tell us more about the upcoming “Kickoff” meeting in November?

COSMIC will host its inaugural, or “kickoff,” meeting on Nov. 7–8, 2023, at the University of Maryland. The inaugural meeting is open to all U.S. persons and will start down the multi-year path of addressing key ISAM activities through its five focus areas. You can go here to learn more or and register for COSMIC’s Kickoff meeting.

COSMIC will continue to foster a collaborative environment across the space enterprise. After the kickoff meeting, COSMIC will begin working on developing products that align with the needs identified by the stakeholders. Our second COSMIC meeting will be held in May 2024 to discuss the progress of those products and obtain feedback from the community.