Because the Space Force is taking in-orbit assistance seriously

WASHINGTON – With new requirements in hand and a new unit focused on maintenance and maneuvering in space, the US Space Force is moving to tap into a growing commercial market for in-orbit logistics, according to the service’s mobility firm chief .

Brig. Gene. Stephen Purdy, commander of Space Systems Command’s Assured Access to Space directorate, said the prospect of refueling, cleaning up debris, and even repairing and building satellites in space has long been a service interest, but never a mission. .

That could change, he said at an October news conference. 20 industry conference in Los Angeles.

“Elements of this have actually been in Space Force doctrine from the beginning, but we haven’t had any operational units that do that, no acquisition programs. It wasn’t something we had a chance to get to,” Purdy said at the Armed Forces Communications and Electronics Association’s Space Industry Day conference. “So, our organization is taking it seriously.”

An indication of the growing interest of the service is its investment. In June, the Space Force’s technology arm SpaceWERX selected 125 teams for the first phase of its Orbital Prime program, which aims to mature in-space maintenance and debris removal technologies. Each team received $250,000 to create the first projects of their submissions, and the service plans to pick a subset of those companies this year for second-round awards of up to $1.5 million each.

The Space Force is also making organizational changes and increasing its engagement with the space industry in this area. In August, the service created a new deputy director of operations for the service and maneuver role to oversee the effort, appointing Col. Meredith Berg to lead the individual bureau. Space Systems Command held its first two-day industry event in September focusing on space access, maneuvering and logistics to learn more about the capabilities companies are developing.

The US Space Command drafted initial requirements for the mission area, which were approved by the Space Force, giving Purdy and his team an extra starting point as they begin to explore technology options.

Brig. Gene. Dennis Bythewood, deputy commander of SPACECOM’s Joint Task Force-Space Defense, said Oct. 15. 19 during the AFCEA conference the ability to service satellites will have a significant impact on space operations.

“This is a growth area for us,” he said. “That’s a boost you’ll see coming from us in our engagements with the industry.”

‘Room bass’ in space

Spacecraft In-Orbit Service, Assembly and Manufacturing, or OSAM, is considered an emerging space technology in the commercial and government realms. A 2021 report by Aerospace Corp., a federally funded research and development facility, estimated that commercial refueling systems will be demonstrated by 2026 and assembly and repair in space by the end of the decade.

“Due to contracting technology and falling prices, on-orbit service, assembly and manufacturing (OSAM) is an area of ​​emerging technology and growth in the space domain,” according to the report. “In the more distant future, maintenance and manufacturing in space is likely to drive demand for the extraction and refinement of materials in space to support the maintenance and construction of space systems.”

Purdy described OSAM as the equivalent of “Space Roombas” for cleaning up orbital debris or towing a decommissioned spacecraft, and AAAs for refueling and repairing satellites.

“We’re closer than you might think on a lot of these things,” Purdy said.

Together with the SpaceWERX Orbital Prime initiative, the Air Force Research Laboratory, the Defense Innovation Unit and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency are studying these technologies and evaluating how the DoD could exploit them.

While capability development is part of that job, the service wants to leverage commercial technology, Col. Todd Benson, the Space Force’s director of requirements, said during the AFCEA conference.

Industry activity in the OSAM market comes from companies large and small. Northrop Grumman, the fourth-largest defense contractor in the world according to a 2022 Defense News analysis, demonstrated the ability to dock, or attach, to an orbiting satellite through its Mission Extension Vehicle. Orbit Fab, a small Colorado-based company, is developing an in-space refueling capability that includes satellite shuttles and refueling depots.

“The desire is to use as much commercial as possible,” Benson said.


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