Just this month, the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) announced that a robotic repair arm it is developing will be ready for launch in 2025. Until then, it will just be the latest advance in satellite tuning, ready to help clear a path through the growing accumulation of space debris orbiting the Earth.
This is good news for satellite owners and the businesses and consumers who rely on them. But these technologies also give cause for concern. Military leaders in particular fear that orbiting machines designed to repair satellites could also be used to attack them. These concerns, in turn, can lead to distrust and potentially serious misperceptions and conflicts. Curbing these misconceptions will be critical to the continued growth of the booming commercial space industry.
Astronauts were the original in-orbit solution to repair or upgrade government and scientific equipment such as Skylab and the Hubble Space Telescope. But such costly and dangerous missions would never have been launched for a commercial enterprise.
Incentives have shifted over the past 15 years. First, the growth of commercial space activity has prompted consideration of whether and how to breathe more life into expensive satellites that were never designed to be refueled or repaired.
Second, the growing fleet of functioning satellites in Earth orbit — their number has doubled to around 6,000 in the past two years — shares space with 26,000 space debris, including 3,000 dead satellites, any of which could destroy a functioning satellite in a collision. In 2009, an inactive Russian satellite crashed into a communications unit operated by a US company; The International Space Station regularly dodges space debris.
Satellite repair programs have accelerated as threats and opportunities increase. In 2020, a Northrop Grumman Corp. company invited 15 years of fuel on a small spacecraft and sent it to connect to an aging communications satellite, where it now provides auxiliary power to keep the older unit properly aligned with Earth. In a few years, Northrop’s MEV-1 will tow the exhausted satellite into a harmless orbit and then move on to its next space customer.
As of April, there are at least 30 companies around the world developing technology to maintain and extend the life of satellites in orbit.
Governments too. DARPA, under the Department of Defense, has a long-standing research program that has produced its robotic repair arm. Sometime after 2025, Nasa plans to launch a repair robot to cut into a satellite and introduce a refueling line to fill it up. The European Space Agency, Russia and the Chinese space program are working on their own technologies.
As important and exciting as these advances are, they are also potentially dangerous. Technologies that extend the life of a satellite can also be used to destroy a satellite; If the intention behind a mission is not clearly formulated, suspicion increases. In January, for example, China sent a spacecraft to grab a defunct Chinese satellite and pull it into an out-of-path orbit. In theory, this was an excellent use of satellite service technology. But military analysts in the US and elsewhere have been unnerved by the possibility of using the same technology against a commercial or military asset such as a US spy satellite.
The threat is no longer just an intellectual exercise. Satellites powered by Elon Musk’s SpaceX have played a crucial role in providing communications infrastructure for the Ukrainian military during the Russian invasion. Last month, a Russian official warned the UN General Assembly that “quasi-civilian infrastructure could become a legitimate target for retaliation.” Just months before the Russian invasion, it successfully tested an anti-satellite missile against a dead Russian satellite, creating a massive debris cloud that was already endangering spacecraft, including the International Space Station. A dual-use maintenance satellite would be a more subtle means of achieving similar goals.
It’s a concern compounded by the increasing frequency of US-China interactions in space, such as a mysterious game of cat-and-mouse between a US surveillance satellite and two Chinese inspection satellites earlier this year that involved them maneuvering to see each other better .
As such incidents become more common, the risk of a satellite maintenance mission being misperceived as hostile increases. And there is no technological solution for this. Instead, it will require the slow and patient development of global standards for operating satellite maintenance missions. Transparency should be a top priority, and private companies should be quick to adopt policies that require public notification of intent, location and timing of maintenance calls. Then, when companies – or governments or the military – ignore these norms, it will be obvious to everyone.
The good news is that in-orbit maintenance can transform space exploration and commercialization, as can the reusable rockets developed by Elon Musk’s SpaceX. Not only can these satellites extend missions, save money and reduce collision risks, but the technologies associated with them – including robotic repair arms – could pioneer the development of manufacturing in space. Meanwhile, the growing threat of space debris is simply becoming a waste management issue in the sustainable use and commercialization of the last frontier. All it takes to reduce the risks and maximize the benefits is for the world’s space nations and companies to agree on a more transparent and safer space. More from other Bloomberg Opinion writers:
Final Outer Space Result: Earth 1, Asteroid 0: Stephen L. Carter
Macron’s moonshot looks like a long shot: Laurent & Hughes
Human rights on Mars will not be the same as on Earth: Tyler Cowen
This column does not necessarily represent the opinion of the editors or of Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Adam Minter is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering Asia, technology and the environment. Most recently, he is the author of Secondhand: Travels in the New Global Garage Sale.
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