How in-orbit servicing capabilities are building a new infrastructure in space
In the late nineteenth century the Benz Patent Wagen was the state-of-the-art motor car. Hand-built, capable of 10mph and generating 500W of output from a lightweight engine, it was at the cutting-edge of automotive technology. And yet, no more than twenty-five were made between 1886 and 1893. In 1907, Henry Ford produced his iconic Model T, and by 1927 had sold fifteen million of them. The innovations Ford made were not only in the car but in the production and assembly line. Easier maintenance, standardised components and chassis parts, mass fabrication, and a partly automated manufacturing system drove down costs for both manufacturers and owners.
The traditional business model of the space sector has been to manufacture hand-built, one-and-done spacecraft to fulfil a very specific mission brief. This is expensive, and time-consuming. But the cost of launch is coming down thanks to the efforts of commercial launchers such as those offered by SpaceX, and the new commercial entrants to the space market want greater flexibility, adaptability, maintainability, advanced customisation, and reduced costs.
We’re at our Model T moment.
Space companies and users are already using advanced robotics, AI, imaging, decision-making, sensing, and planning capabilities in their spacecraft. These technologies are now being coupled with a new philosophy of spacecraft design and manufacture: namely, mass fabrication, an adoption of modular builds and standardised systems and components, and a drive towards the more sustainable use of space, including the salvaging, re-use, and recycling of spacecraft and their materials and components.
In-Orbit Servicing will be first and primary market to take advantage of these technologies, and bring benefits to users, operators and investors alike. There are several missions planned up to 2030, including ESA’s, and this all follows Northrup Grumman’s successful MEV missions. In-orbit servicing encompasses a wide variety of services and operations occupying the “midstream” section of the space sector spectrum, offering refuelling, exchange of active payload modules, salvage, repair, upgrades, and even the physical reconfiguration of satellites to alter their form and function.
These capabilities will build a new infrastructure in space, one where interoperability, modularity, standardisation and open architectures are the norm. An openly available set of standards for robotic interconnectors, interfaces, and modules will enable new entrants to the market to work alongside established movers and shakers, in much the same way that USB connections and App Store source codes can be exploited by any developer on the ground.
This is not only desirable but necessary. The UK National Space Strategy lists a range of emerging space sectors the UK is well-placed to support and grow. In-orbit servicing is listed as the first, but in reality the technologies and capabilities required to perform in-orbit operations will act as stepping-stones to the next generation of the emerging sectors listed: in-space manufacturing, space-based construction and assembly; space-based solar power; exploration and in-situ resource utilisation. All of these sector areas require the adoption of this new philosophical approach. Space-based solar power alone will require spacecraft of such vast magnitude and complexity that a multitude of different entities are required to make it work.
In-orbit servicing is now a commercial sector. Users’ desires for greater spacecraft flexibility and adaptability will be fulfilled not by space agency operations but by commercial vehicles. The UK Space Agency’s driving ambition is to catalyse investment into the space sector, and connect investors with innovative developers and service-providers. Businesses offering components and systems that adhere to this new design philosophy will find opportunities for investment and funding.
The UK government is acting to de-risk several of the technologies required for this emerging sector, not least by acting as the initial customer for the Active Debris Removal IOD mission, currently in Phase B. This may act not only as a demonstrator for the relevant capabilities, but also to show that the UK government, as an IOD customer, can provide stepping stones to businesses accessing space and proving their commercial credentials and the viability of the market.
The UK Space Agency is committed to connecting innovative space SMEs with investors via its Space Investment Forums, Space Catalyst Fund, and membership of the ESA Scale-Up Invest programme, while wider Government is implementing the Private Investment Framework via the Department of Business & Trade.
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