Artist's rendering of Above: Orbital's Voyager Station, which rotates to produce varying levels of artificial gravity. Credit: Above: Orbital

SAN FRANCISCO – Above: Orbital is developing technology to provide energy for on-orbit servicing, assembly and manufacturing with the support of two recent Small Business Innovation Research awards.

Under a $75,000 U.S. Air Force contract announced in May, Above: Orbital is working with Ascent Solar Technologies on manufacturing thin-film solar photovoltaics in space. Above: Orbital also is developing rapidly deployable structures for space-based solar panels, communications antenna arrays and other large structures under a $1.7 million U.S. Space Force award announced in March.

The awards highlight Above: Orbital’s commitment to making “commercial production a realistic, accessible and profitable enterprise,” Above: Orbital CEO Rhonda Stevenson told SpaceNews. “We’re not looking at doing more experimentation. We are now ready to go to that next level.”

Above: Orbital is part of Above Space Development Corp., a Huntsville, Alabama-based startup previously known as Orbital Assembly Development Corp. The company changed its name in 2022 as its projects extended beyond assembling structures in orbit to include developing automated space platforms for defense and commercial applications.

“We began to acquire a lot more skills and capabilities that didn’t just fit under the parameters of Orbital Assembly,” Stevenson said.

Thin Film Solar Photovoltaics

Manufacturing thin-film solar photovoltaics terrestrially requires heavy equipment.

“Probably 70 percent, 80 percent or more of the equipment weight is associated with creating a vacuum on the ground,” said Paul Warley Ascent Solar CEO. “We think we can get a lot of efficiencies through manufacturing this in space.”

If on-orbit manufacturing of the thin film technology is possible, it could help orbital platforms fulfill their own energy needs.

“We are looking for solutions to provide more power on orbit in a way that makes sense, is readily accessible and affordable,” Stevenson said. “Thin film is very lightweight and an affordable solar solution terrestrially. Being able to tap into that on orbit to complement other methodologies for an enhanced power supply is a critical piece in what on-orbit manufacturing needs to transition to a commercial enterprise.”

Power Beaming

The work Above: Orbital is performing under the $1.7 million SpaceWERX SBIR is complementary to the thin film manufacturing initiative.

Above: Orbital is designing and developing prototype receivers for beamed energy in conjunction with the Air Force Research Laboratory’s Space Solar Power Incremental Demonstrations and Research Project, known as SSPIDR.

“It’s a good time to develop energy solutions for on-orbit application,” Stevenson said.

Through the two SBIR awards, Above: Orbital is “taking incremental steps to de-risk the overall effort of putting more platforms on orbit,” Stevenson said. “Energy is essential. It’s foundational to being able to provide more space in space.”

Debra Werner is a correspondent for SpaceNews based in San Francisco. Debra earned a bachelor’s degree in communications from the University of California, Berkeley, and a master’s degree in Journalism from Northwestern University. She...