Orbital fueling and manufacturing will transfer from concept to actuality in 2021


The idea that satellites and other spacecraft in orbit could refuel, repair, or even add new capabilities generally seemed "theoretically nice", but as the leader of Maxar, Astroscale and Orbit Fab stated at TC Sessions: Space, 2021 will be the year the theory becomes reality – or at least realistic.

Once they rise, satellites are generally viewed as tangible assets that are only depreciating, becoming obsolete, or nearing the end of their fuel supply and inevitably deorbing. With a little coordination, many of these phenomenally expensive spaceships could add life to their lives in various ways, and given the cost of lofting a new one, the view could be attractive.

"The start-up costs fall, but so does the start-up frequency. The cadence with which things are sent into space also increases," emphasized Lucy Condakchian, GM for robotics at Maxar Technologies . “So if you launch payloads of smaller subsystems and so on and then you are able to put things together in space, you may change some aspect of what this satellite does. Why can't we boot up and actually replace a power subsystem? replace a camera mechanism, a computer element, whatever the case? "

Maxar and NASA will demonstrate this next year with OSAM-1, formerly called Restore-L, in which a spaceship will attempt to maintain, assemble and manufacture objects (hence the name) in orbit.

"Just being able to demonstrate something in space shows that we can, proves the 'yes it is possible' point and hopefully opens up a lot more possibilities," said Condakchian. The company's robotic weapons for Mars landers have also proven their versatility, and there's no reason to believe that satellite weapons aren't that useful.

While Maxar aims to equip future spaceships, Ron Lopez, President of Astroscale US (the original company is based in Japan), sees an opportunity in today's aging space infrastructure.

“There are many companies developing into orbit inspection services. This applies to satellites that are already on the market and do not have these robotic functions or cannot afford to have them in the future if the product owner operator decides not to put them on, ”he explained.

"There are any number of different use cases for this type of function," he continued. "Insurance claims when there is an anomaly on a satellite and needs to be determined what happened, etc. or awareness of the space situation. Of course we know this is a big concern for everyone as more and more objects are in space. It is very important to understand what is where, what to do and poses a threat to other objects in space. "

Astroscale, which recently raised a $ 51 million Series E, is about to launch a mission in just a few months that will demonstrate the detection and removal of debris in orbit. That doesn't mean replacement screws are dropped from ISS spacewalks – rather, dead satellites drifting and desorbing in their own time, which could be years from now. All they need is a little boost and low earth orbit is so much safer and cleaner.

Daniel Faber, CEO and Founder of Orbit Fab, wants to prevent this situation from occurring in the first place by building so-called "gas stations in space". It's a bit different from terrestrial, maybe closer to in-flight refueling, but you got the idea.

“The future Orbit Fab sees is a fully collaborative and bustling space economy. We don't think this can be achieved by using robotics on every spaceship. There will always be a need for tow trucks, there will always be a need for complex robot maintenance when things go wrong and things break down. And at the moment nothing has been developed for maintenance. So for all of these things you need a tow truck, ”he said.

"We couldn't build a satellite gas tanker because we couldn't find the tank port. So we built one," he said, referring to the company's RAFTI port that dozens of partners are currently planning to add to their spacecraft also had to develop other products and technologies to make refueling accessible to our customers. "

The tanker will have its first orbit tests – you guessed it, next year. A recently announced investment, with seed capital of $ 6 million, should help. 2021 seems like a huge challenge for many areas of space, but in this particular sector it will be the moment when the ability is demonstrated, potentially leading to a significant expansion in the following year.

That was only a fraction of what we talked about in the panel. If you missed it live, don't worry – Extra Crunch subscribers get access to all of the on-stage content from TC Sessions: Space and all other events. Sign up here.