Development of on-orbit servicing, assembly and manufacturing creates new capabilities in spacefaring operations
By Hao Chen and Koki Ho|December 2022
The Space Logistics Technical Committee fosters development of integrated space logistics capabilities that enable safe, affordable and routine spacefaring operations.
On-orbit or in-space servicing, assembly and manufacturing, also known as OSAM and ISAM, one of the key application areas of space logistics, is rapidly growing. In April, the White House released a national strategy for in-space servicing, assembly and manufacturing that outlines how the U.S. will support and stimulate government, academic and commercial ISAM capability development. Successful ISAM is expected to extend the lifespan of satellites, refuel spacecraft on journeys to deep space destinations and assemble large structures in space. It lays the foundation to perform sustainable space exploration and break the dependence on Earth’s supply chain logistics.
Symbolic progress in OSAM/ISAM technologies development was achieved this year. In February, NASA and Maxar Technologies completed the OSAM-1 mission critical design review. OSAM-1 will grapple and refuel Landsat 7, an Earth-observing satellite launched in 1999, via a robotic arm. This would be a first-of-its-kind refueling demonstration by NASA. The completion of CDR marks the end of the design phase and the beginning of the building process.
Also in February, SpaceLogistics, a Northrop Grumman subsidiary, announced its first Mission Extension Pod sale to Optus, Australia’s largest satellite owner and operator. The MEP is a propulsion augmentation device that can extend the lifespan of a typical 2,000-kilogram satellite in geostationary orbit for six years. A Mission Robotic Vehicle spacecraft will install the MEP to Optus’ D3 satellite in 2025 after launch by a SpaceX rocket in 2024.
In April, Redwire’s OSAM-2 mission passed its CDR. The refrigerator-sized spacecraft will demonstrate in-space manufacturing capabilities by 3D printing one 10-meter-long beam and one 6-meter-long beam in orbit.
In May, NASA awarded two Small Business Innovation Research Phase II contracts worth $1.5 million to Astrobotic of Pennsylvania to further develop its laser imaging, detection and ranging software, which would support in-space satellite servicing as well as detect hazards for spacecraft landing on celestial objects.
In the realm of defense, in March, the U.S. Air Force and Space Force awarded $6 million to Orbit Fab, a California-based startup. With an additional $6 million in funding from its private investors, Orbit Fab will install its RAFTI fueling port — short for rapidly attachable fluid transfer interface — onto military satellites.
For work on the NASA’s Artemis program, in June, NASA and the U.S. Department of Energy awarded Lockheed Martin, Westinghouse and IX $5 million each to develop initial concepts of 40-kilowatt class fission power systems for long-duration lunar missions. These would provide continuous power regardless of location, available sunlight and other natural environmental conditions for at least 10 years. In the same month, NASA’s CAPSTONE cubesat was launched on a Rocket Lab Electron rocket to test the new orbit for Artemis moon missions. Short for Cislunar Autonomous Positioning System Technology Operations and Navigation Experiment, CAPSTONE will provide operating data in a near rectilinear halo orbit intended for the future Gateway lunar outpost. CAPSTONE arrived in lunar orbit in November.
In academia, the Air Force Research Laboratory awarded a multi-institute team led by Carnegie Mellon University via its newly established Space University Research Initiative program to perform basic research for the space logistics and servicing paradigm in the GEO belt. Also, MIT is working with Blue Origin and Sierra Space to develop the logistics strategy for Orbital Reef, a commercial space station to be assembled in orbit by 2026.