WASHINGTON — With fresh requirements and a new unit focused on maintenance and maneuvering in space, the US Space Force is taking steps to capitalize on a growing commercial market for in-orbit logistics, according to the head of the service’s mobility company.
Brig. Gen. Stephen Purdy, commander of Space Systems Command’s Secure Space Access Directorate, said the prospect of refueling, debris clearance and even repairing and building satellites in space has long been an interest for the service, but never a mission.
That could change, he said at an industry conference Oct. 20 in Los Angeles.
“Elements of it were actually part of Space Force doctrine from the beginning, but we didn’t have any operational entities that do that, no acquisition programs. We didn’t have the opportunity to do that,” Purdy said at the Armed Forces Communications and Electronics Association’s Space Industry Day conference. “So our organization is seriously addressing this.”
One indication of the service’s growing interest 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 technologies for space maintenance and debris removal. Each team received $250,000 to create early drafts of their proposals and service plans to select a subset of these companies for this year’s second round, with prizes 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 operations manager for maintenance and maneuvering duties to oversee the effort and appointed Colonel Meredith Berg to head the one-person office. Space Systems Command hosted its first two-day industry event in September, focused on space access, maneuver and logistics to learn more about the capabilities companies are developing.
The US Space Command has created initial mission area requirements that have been approved by the Space Force, giving Purdy and his team a better 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 that 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 drive you’ll see coming from us in our industry engagements.”
“Roombas” in space
On-Orbit Service, Assembly and Manufacturing for Spacecraft, or OSAM, is recognized as an emerging commercial and government space technology. A 2021 report from Aerospace Corp., a space-focused, government-funded research and development center, estimates that commercial refueling systems will be demonstrated by 2026 and assembled and repaired in space before the end of the decade.
“Due to shrinking technology and falling prices, in-orbit maintenance, assembly and manufacturing (OSAM) is an area of emerging technology and growth in the space space,” the report said. “More distantly, in-space maintenance and manufacturing will likely drive demand for in-space material extraction and refining to support the maintenance and construction of space systems.”
Purdy described OSAM as the equivalent of “space roombas” for clearing orbital debris or towing a decommissioned spacecraft and AAA for satellite refueling and repairs.
“We’re closer to a lot of these things than you might think,” Purdy said.
Along with the SpaceWERX Orbital Prime initiative, the Air Force Research Laboratory, the Defense Innovation Unit and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency are exploring these technologies and considering how DoD could use them.
While capability development is part of this work, the service wants to leverage commercial technology, Space Force director of requirements Col. Todd Benson said during the AFCEA conference.
Industry activity in the OSAM market comes from large and small companies. Northrop Grumman, the fourth largest defense company in the world according to a 2022 Defense News analysis, has demonstrated the ability to dock or attach its Mission Extension Vehicle to an orbiting satellite. Orbit Fab, a smaller Colorado-based company, is developing an in-space fueling capability that will involve satellite shuttles and fueling depots.
“The desire is to get as much commercial use as possible,” Benson said.