STATE OF PLAY
On-Orbit Servicing, Assembly, and Manufacturing for Spacecraft
Shrinking technology and lower costs are making on-orbit servicing, assembly, and manufacturing an area of emerging technology and growth in the space domain.
On-orbit servicing, assembly, and manufacturing (OSAM) refers to the use of refuelers and space tugs for on-orbit maneuvering and refueling. Several companies are now competing in the trade space of these exciting missions in the U.S. and European marketplace.
Key Technologies and Developments
From the U.S. government side, the Defense Innovation Unit (DIU) has current Orbital Outpost and Multi-Orbit Logistics Vehicle (m-OLV) programs. The Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) is researching technologies related to refueling small spacecraft. The Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center (SMC) has ongoing work studying refueling for future National Security Space (NSS) satellites. The United States has created a National OSAM Initiative, which would include elements and capabilities important to the Department of Defense (DOD), and civil and intelligence community agencies.
Several “whole of government” topics are being discussed currently, including standards developments, technology development, and prototyping, emphasizing the need to begin preparing satellites currently in or entering the development cycle for servicing in the future through the addition of high-level requirements language and the development of interface standards.
For large and government contractors, Northrop Grumman is currently in the lead with its Mission Extension Vehicle 1 (MEV-1), which, in 2020, successfully docked with client satellite Intelsat 901 in the geosynchronous graveyard (about 300 kilometers above the geosynchronous orbit). Two months later, the MEV-1 had returned the satellite back to its operational orbit, where MEV-1’s own propulsion systems will provide Intelsat 901 five more years of operational life.
OSAM-1 (formally, Restore-L) is scheduled for launch in 2024. Using a commercial satellite bus provided by Maxar, OSAM-1 will rendezvous with the Landsat 7 spacecraft, refuel it, and then perform an in-space robotic assembly of an antenna and a boom. OSAM-2, formerly known as Archinaut 1, is a spacecraft under development by Made In Space to build and deploy a solar array in space.
For small companies, key players include Motiv, a company that makes robotic arms for JPL; Altius, a company focused on satellite-servicing systems and, along with OrbitFab, propellant transfer; and Astroscale, a company that targets autonomous orbital debris removal. A recent trend is the acquisition of smaller companies by special purpose acquisition companies (SPACs).
In the past year, Altius was acquired by Voyager Space Holdings. Since its founding in 2019, Voyager has acquired three other space companies—The Launch Co., NanoRacks, and Pioneer Astronautics. Additionally, since 2020, Redwire Inc. has acquired Made in Space and rolled up six other space companies —Adcole Space, Deep Space Systems, Deployable Space Systems, LoadPath, Oakman Aerospace, and Roccor.
Select International Initiatives
In response to U.S. advances in the domain, Europe has shown a great deal of interest and funding for in-space satellite manufacturing. Airbus Defense and Space in Bremen, Germany, is developing a “Satellite Factory in Space,” which will lead a seven-company consortium in a two-year Phase A/B1 study for the PerAspera In-Orbit Demonstration (PERIOD) project, supported by $3.6 million in funding from the European Commission under the Horizon 2020 research program. PERIOD will demonstrate the value of in-space servicing, manufacturing, and assembly with the intention of enabling Europe to develop the capabilities and industrial infrastructure necessary to be positioned strongly in the in-orbit servicing and manufacturing market.
In the coming years, we expect to see many new entrants in the OSAM field. Commercial refueling is expected to be demonstrated within three to five years and become more common moving forward. On-orbit repair and component swaps are probably five to 10 years away. Lower cost and higher dexterity versions of robotic arms are in development and will make missions more commercially viable.
Beyond mechanics, a shift in thinking for traditional spacecraft manufacturers and operators will be needed to develop a comfort level with the servicing concept. SMC is assessing interface standards for future spacecraft servicing, and the commercial industry will likely follow this lead. The ability to have spacecraft serviced on orbit and structures produced in space will eventually affect spacecraft and launch vehicle design.
Ultimately, the reliability of in-space servicing and manufacturing is likely to increase demand for launches of assembly and building materials, followed by the need to access materials already in space — thereby eliminating the time and cost of launching out of Earth’s gravity well. In the more distant future, in-space servicing and manufacturing is likely to drive demand for in-space material extraction and refinement to support servicing and construction of space systems orbiting Earth, in the cislunar domain, and beyond.
State of Play is a bimonthly advisory publication dedicated to emerging trends in space innovation in the private sector. View online at aerospace.org/state-of-play.