Today’s commercial space business is built largely around “space-to-data” applications, such as satellite communications and remote sensing, yet a range of key space players from ambitious startups to established names are predicting the growth of new industries around maintenance and manufacture of orbital infrastructure, and the development and utilization of physical resources. What’s more, this era of true “space-to-space” commerce could be closer than many of us think.
One of those startups is banking on the power of “small” to create new business infrastructure for in-space services. “The advent of microsatellites and miniature technologies is changing spacecraft from traditional monolithic entities to aggregate-able platforms on orbit,” says David Barnhart, CEO and founder of Arkisys Inc. “On-Earth small business accounts for at least 50% of the US industrial engine, most in the services sector. New technology and lower-cost access is opening up the space domain to smaller businesses, with the potential to create new revenue streams from in-space services. In the end, this ultimately may be larger in business scope than traditional government and large company entrants, leveraging traits inherent in small companies that can move and innovate fast.”
For Al Tadros, Vice President of Civil and DoD Business at satellite expert Space Systems Loral (SSL; Palo Alto, CA), the story starts close to home. “Here at SSL our background has been 57 years of spacecraft development, and in the past 25 years or so we’ve been focused in the commercial space arena – our satellite manufacturing business has been self-sustaining and completely independent of government projects. That’s a significant international business for us, and we’re looking for continued innovation, growth and technology advances.
“One of the things we’re looking at is reducing the cost and increasing the flexibility of satellites by in-space manufacturing and assembly. Our manufacturing business is not just going to be focused on the ground, but assembled, reconfigured and upgraded on orbit, on a much faster cycle time.”
For SSL, advances in robotics are the key to offering these new services, but perhaps surprisingly, they won’t just be limited to the construction of new satellites. “Servicing of existing satellites is another area that we’re interested in,” continues Tadros. “The technologies are ready, so it’s really about the business case. We’re looking at building a robotic servicing capability that can assemble, reconfigure, refuel, refurbish and even relocate satellites that were not designed from the outset to be serviced.”
Aside from robotics, Tadros highlights that “SSL has also led the way in employing high-power electric propulsion technologies for GEO satellites and more recently for deep space applications. We’ve recently partnered with JPL [NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory] and Arizona State University [ASU] to apply this highly efficient technology in a mission designed to visit the main asteroid belt.”
If that sounds impressive, other aspects of SSL’s plans are even more ambitious. “Integrating robotics into space systems is one of our core capabilities, but we also see ourselves in the space services business, playing a major role in manufacturing, refueling and providing the in-space transportation and infrastructure for in-situ resource utilization [ISRU] businesses.”
ISRU in particular is the key to opening up the solar system beyond Earth orbit. Most long-term plans for human space exploration involve exploiting resources such as reserves of water ice found in permanently shaded craters at the lunar poles, in the Martian permafrost and within some asteroids. On instinct, this might sound like the preserve of ambitious big-government projects, but according to Jim Keravala of Shackleton Energy Company (SEC; Austin, TX), the commercial benefits of ISRU make it a prime target for development by private industry.
“Once you’re up in low Earth orbit,” explains Keravala, “You’re still in a fairly deep gravity well, and moving around, either to maneuver in that orbit or to get out of it, requires a lot of propellant. If you want humans to be able to travel in the inner solar system, then you’re really going to need vast quantities of high-thrust chemical propellant in space.”
As well as founding Shackleton Energy, Keravala is Executive Director of the Off World Consortium, a group of organizations collaborating to develop in-space manufacturing, mineral extraction and the building of large-scale infrastructure such as space-based solar power. SEC’s specific focus is on setting up propellant depots – specialized satellites or spacecraft (initially in that same low Earth orbit, but later spread more widely) – that would manufacture liquid hydrogen and oxygen fuels by processing ice mined from the lunar surface. Despite the costs of setting up such an operation, the Moon’s weak gravity ultimately makes fuel sourced from lunar ice far cheaper than that lofted from Earth itself.
“The economics of a scaling refuelable transportation system really require thousands of tons of propellant to be available at various waystations as that economy matures,” elaborates Keravala. “But for that to happen, you need to establish a plan from the start for scalable access to low-cost propellant. The early stages of that supply would come from Earth – the launch would be expensive but the strategic value of excess propellant would justify that cost to early markets. But as we scale, we need to establish that lunar supply chain to obtain a much lower cost of propellant. By mid-century and beyond, the opportunity to access vast quantities of propellant beyond the Moon in near-Earth and asteroid-belt sources would add to the supply chain.”
It’s an intriguing idea and, Keravala argues, an essential stepping stone to the efficient exploration and exploitation of space resources. “Whatever transport system we’ve used in the last 10,000 years, we’ve always developed some kind of refueling capability. We don’t tend to just discard an animal or a vehicle just because it’s hungry and get another one – but that’s what we do with our space vehicles today.”
SSL’s Tadros further highlights the importance of ISRU: “NASA’s looking at taking people to the Moon, Mars, asteroids and other destinations. Preparing a site to receive them is going to be important both for safety and for sustaining humans there – we’re no longer going to land for just a few days, but planning for much longer stays, so being able to implement ISRU is going to be an important part of that. And again we at SSL are developing the robotic and manipulation capabilities to do a lot of that, delivering infrastructure in advance of a human arrival.”
SEC’s current plans, meanwhile, foresee the initial stages of a lunar ISRU plant being set up by human astronauts – though as Keravala admits, that may not ultimately be necessary. “Robotics are an essential tool, but humans are currently the most advanced and flexible system for working in unstructured environments. The trade-off is always whether a robot is as capable – or at least capable enough – that we can say, okay we can’t do everything, but it’s 20% of the capital and 10% of the operational costs to send a robotic system and do, say, 80% of the operations. So what we could have is a situation in which robotic systems can provide the vanguard, establishing a line of propellant, food and water resources and shelter, and basically creating a rolling front of habitable outposts ready for human exploration to come and set up camp.”
About Space Tech Expo
America’s meeting place for space and defense technology returns to California for three days of knowledge sharing and networking alongside the largest supply chain exhibition of its kind.
With capabilities ranging from cryogenics, laser systems, materials, nanotechnology, imaging, environmental test, motion simulation, magnetics, capacitors, spacewire, NDT, and connectors through to electroforming, engineering services, precision machining, 3D printers, ground systems, mission management, and reconnaissance satellites, Space Tech Expo 2016 will bring a multitude of networking opportunities through focused receptions and events for attendees and exhibitors throughout the commercial, civil and military space supply chain. http://www.spacetechexpo.com/
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About Space Tech Conference
The Space Tech Conference agenda will examine how military and government organizations can deliver space missions by working closely with the commercial sector to leverage the latest innovative technologies and business models. The conference also takes a deep dive into the rapidly evolving space-to-space market and offers specific sessions examining the plethora of on-orbit services and technologies emerging.
On May 26, Space Tech Expo is delighted to host the free-to-attend Gov/Mil/Prime Requirements Day. The session will be held in the exhibition hall, allowing all attendees to participate and hear the upcoming space supply chain requirements of government and military organizations, as well as major prime contractors.
Key topics for 2016:
• Commercial, defence and new space – the inflection point
• Launch market trends – reusability and affordability
• Simplifying and improving ground systems architecture
• Commercialising new technologies
• Driving innovation with new space players
• Cross-sector collaboration in space situational awareness
• Enabling space-to-space commerce and on-orbit services
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