A growing in-orbit servicing opportunity is tempting satellite builders to branch out of communications, imagery, and other standard fare to get a foothold in this emerging market.
So far this year, Astroscale, Starfish, and Clearspace have raised around $119 million in total for their in-orbit servicing ventures, all from early-stage investors confident enough in their prospects to shrug off challenging macroeconomic conditions.
And after helping pioneer the satellite life extension part of this market with two ongoing missions in geostationary orbit (GEO), Northrop Grumman plans to deploy a more elaborate robotic servicer next year to expand its capabilities significantly.
LeoStella, which mostly builds low Earth orbit (LEO) remote sensing satellites and primarily for its part-owner BlackSky, is watching the growing activity with a keen eye, so far from the sidelines.
“There’s nobody that has an off-the-shelf commercial solution yet,” LeoStella business development vice president Mike Kaplan said, “so, of course, it’s tempting as a satellite builder.”
He said LeoStella is open to partnering with a company that could use the up-to-500-kilogram buses it builds for LEO for a satellite life extension business in GEO.
“The way that we look at that business is we see the basic vehicle as a standard smallsat bus that we make,” he said, “and we see the robotics, the sensor suite for proximity operations for rendezvous, capture — all that as part of the payload.”
LeoStella has “been in touch with some firms that are interested in pursuing this business,” Kaplan added, “so we’re starting to take a look at it.”
But while LeoStella has 19 satellites in orbit after starting from scratch five years ago, Kaplan noted moving to GEO and into servicing would be a big leap for the company.
Demand is also not quite there yet for a company that specializes in building constellations of satellites.
LeoStella would need to see a need for five to 10 life-extending servicers, according to Kaplan, and while there is interest out there, he said, “I haven’t seen something put in front of me yet that says it’s quite ready for primetime.”
“It’s almost there,” he added, “I mean, it could be six months or a year away.”
Astranis already builds small GEO satellites with a mass of under 400 kilograms for communications customers. It plans to bring its first spacecraft into service later this year following an April 30 Falcon Heavy launch.
However, while in-orbit servicing presents an interesting diversification opportunity, Astranis CEO John Gedmark said it is not one the company is actively pursuing.
Still, there are more than 130 companies looking to play a role in in-orbit servicing, according to Joseph Anderson, vice president of operations and business development for Northrop’s satellite servicing subsidiary SpaceLogistics.
During the Space Symposium in Colorado Springs, Anderson said the number of companies has been accelerating because of growing government support for more in-orbit capabilities and work to standardize and regulate the market.
The two aging Intelsat satellites SpaceLogistics’ Mission Extension Vehicles are currently attached to were built independently of any future servicing possibility.
However, Anderson said starting in 2025 or 2026, he believes all new satellites should be starting to include items that make them easier to be serviced, “starting with things such as refueling ports, or power and data ports, so that they can be repaired or upgraded over time.”
For Starfish CEO Trevor Bennett, “what is truly changing the game here is that there’s a trust that’s starting to build up” in the industry.
As multiple providers come into this market with their own solutions, he said satellite operators would soon be able to rely on an ecosystem of servicers rather than having to bank on the success of one company.
That said, very few missions have actually flown to date, and this emerging market’s success remains highly dependent on the right mix of successful technology, policy, and economics.
This article originally appeared in the May 2023 issue of SpaceNews magazine.