WASHINGTON — With fresh requirements in hand and a new unit focused on in-space servicing and maneuver, the U.S. Space Force is making moves to leverage a growing commercial market for on-orbit logistics, according to the head of the service’s mobility enterprise.
Brig. Gen. 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 an interest for the service, but never a mission.
That may be changing, he said at an Oct. 20 industry conference in Los Angeles.
“Elements of that have actually been in the Space Force doctrine since the beginning, but we’ve had no operational units do it, no acquisition programs. It’s not been something that we’ve 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 getting after it in a serious way.”
One indication of the service’s burgeoning interest is its investment. In June, the Space Force’s technology arm SpaceWERX chose 125 teams for the first phase of its Orbital Prime program, which aims to mature in-space servicing and debris removal technologies. Each team received $250,000 to create early designs of their proposals and the service plans to choose a subset of those companies this year for round-two awards of up to $1.5 million each.
The Space Force is also making organizational shifts and upping its engagement with the space industry in this area. In August, the service created a new deputy director of operations for servicing and maneuver role to oversee the effort, appointing Col. Meredith Berg to lead the one-person office. Space Systems Command in September held its first two-day industry event focused on space access, maneuver and logistics to learn more about the capabilities companies are developing.
U.S. Space Command has crafted initial requirements for the mission area, which were approved by the Space Force, giving Purdy and his team a more starting point as they begin exploring technology options.
Brig. Gen. Dennis Bythewood, deputy commander of SPACECOM’s Joint Task Force-Space Defense, said Oct. 19 during the AFCEA conference the ability to service satellites will have a significant impact on space operations.
“That is a growth area for us,” he said. “That’s a drive you’ll see coming from us in our engagements with industry.”
‘Roombas’ in space
On-orbit servicing, assembly and manufacturing for spacecraft, or OSAM, is considered an emerging space technology in the commercial and government realms. A 2021 report from Aerospace Corp., a space-focused federally funded research and development center, estimated that commercial refueling systems will be demonstrated by 2026 and in-space assembly and repair before the end of the decade.
“Due to shrinking technology and falling prices, on-orbit servicing, 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, in-space servicing and manufacturing is likely to drive demand for in-space material extraction and refinement to support servicing and construction of space systems.”
Purdy described OSAM as the equivalent of “space Roombas” to clean up orbital debris or tow a decommissioned spacecraft and AAA to refuel and repair satellites.
“We’re closer than you might think on many of these things,” Purdy said.
Along with the SpaceWERX Orbital Prime initiative the Air Force Research Laboratory, Defense Innovation Unit and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency are researching these technologies and considering how DoD might leverage them.
While capability development is part of that work, the service wants to take advantage of commercial technology, Col. Todd Benson, the Space Force’s director of requirements, said during the AFCEA conference.
Industry activity in the OSAM market is coming from companies large and small. Northrop Grumman, the fourth largest defense contractor in the world according to a 2022 Defense News analysis, has demonstrated the ability to dock, or attach, to a satellite on orbit through its Mission Extension Vehicle. Orbit Fab, a smaller Colorado-based company, is developing an in-space refueling capability that envisions satellite shuttles and refueling depots.
“The desire is to utilize commercial as much as possible,” Benson said.
Courtney Albon is C4ISRNET’s space and emerging technology reporter. She has covered the U.S. military since 2012, with a focus on the Air Force and Space Force. She has reported on some of the Defense Department’s most significant acquisition, budget and policy challenges.