20 Sep 2023
by Daniel Jones

How in-orbit servicing capabilities are building a new infrastructure in space

Guest blog from Daniel Jones, Future Markets Lead at UK Space Agency. Part of techUK's #SuperchargeUKTech Week 2023.

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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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Daniel Jones

Future Markets Lead, UK Space Agency

Since 2014 Dan has led the UK’s involvement in the EU-funded PERASPERA and EPIC projects, writing the European technology roadmaps for space robotics and electric propulsion. He is currently co-chair of the UK Task Force for cross-sector robotics, and was Chair of the Advisory Board to the Future AI & Robotics Hub for Space between 2018 and 2022. He is responsible for delivering the Space Agency’s Space Investment Forum, sits on the cross-Whitehall group for Horizon Europe, and is the UK advisor to ESA’s IPC Programme Board for the Scale-Up Invest Programme.

Prior to that Dan worked at the trade body ADS Group writing technology roadmaps for the UK civil aerospace sector, which underpinned the Aerospace Growth Partnership and the creation of the Aerospace Technology Institute.

Outside of work he is a science-fiction author; he co-hosts Chronscast: The Fantasy, Science-Fiction and Horror Podcast; and plays bass guitar for the rock band Sky Empire. He lives with his family in Essex.

UK Space Agency

Founded in 2010, the UK Space Agency delivers key elements of the Government’s National Space Strategy. The Agency:

  • catalyses investment, supporting projects that drive investment and generate contracts for the UK space sector
  • delivers space capabilities and missions that meet public needs and advance our understanding of the Universe
  • champions the power of space to inspire people and offer greener, smarter solutions for business, and to support a sustainable future

UK Space Agency programmes have propelled British technology across the Solar System and realised world-first innovations in spacecraft design and satellite applications. The Agency has a powerful global voice, partnering with institutions across the world, including the European Space Agency.

The Agency supports a thriving space sector, which currently generates an income of £16.4 billion each year and employs over 47,000 people across the country. Investment, including private and public, from the UK and overseas, will enable the space sector to deliver important research, develop new technologies and market applications, and keep pace with other nations.

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