Orbital debris artist rendering. Credit: NASA

WASHINGTON — The Space Force’s technology arm known as SpaceWERX plans to award multiple contracts as early as February for the initial phase of the Orbital Prime program focused on on-orbit services.

SpaceWERX officials on Nov. 4 provided new details on Orbital Prime, an effort to bring government and private funding into the emerging OSAM sector, short for on-orbit servicing, assembly and manufacturing. 

Lt. Col. Walter “Rock” McMillan, director of SpaceWERX, said the plan is to select at least one team to conduct an on-orbit demonstration of active debris removal within the next two years. 

“It’s a very aggressive schedule,” McMillan said during an online forum that marked the official kickoff of Orbital Prime. 

A solicitation for proposals will be released Nov. 17. To be eligible to compete for Orbital Prime contracts, companies must team with academic or nonprofit institutions. This is requirement under the Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) program that the Space Force is using to fund Orbital Prime. 

Teams can compete for Phase 1 awards of $250,000 and Phase 2 awards of $1.5 million. If any of teams are selected for an in-space demonstration, the government will fund some portion of the cost. 

McMillan said Orbital Prime is not a traditional “program of record.” The purpose is “really for us to get excitement within this area, to get commercial capabilities flushed into this area so it can be potentially an area that we truly commercialize.”

In the Space Force, “we want to do our part addressing space congestion, starting with active debris remediation,” McMillan said. “And our intent is to really energize academia and small businesses to help us tackle some of our toughest challenges when it comes to OSAM.”

Strict teaming requirements

The Space Force for this project is using STTR contracts which are less flexible than traditional Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) contracts because they require companies to share the work with universities or nonprofits. At least 30% of the work has to be performed by the research institution, and intellectual property sharing agreements are required. 

Participation is open to small businesses that are at least 51% U.S. owned and operated, and the work has to be performed in the United States.

Orbital Prime proposals will be sought in three different technology areas: on-orbit approach, on orbit object acquisition and on-orbit object servicing. 

There are many companies that have mature technologies in all these areas so SpaceWERX is confident a demonstration can be pulled off in two years, said Lt. Col. Brian Holt, program co-leader at AFWERX

“We have talked to a lot of companies and a lot of companies believe that they could do this within 24 months,” he said. 

This could be a demonstration to de-orbit a dead satellite but also of other ways to clean up space such as recycling materials and using them for in-space manufacturing, Holt said.

At the end of this, “we want to see if there are commercial options that are available to the Space Force where the Space Force could then look to pay for a service,” he said.

“One thing that we’ve heard loud and clear from all the companies that we’ve talked to is that something like active debris removal is not going to close the business case individually on itself,” Holt said. 

Industry wants debris removal to be part of a broader on-orbit servicing capability, he added, such as extending the lives of satellites. “We think companies are going to have to be creative to make this business case close. So active debris is jus one use case. We’re hoping to see a lot of creative ideas come from industry on this topic.”

Sandra Erwin writes about military space programs, policy, technology and the industry that supports this sector. She has covered the military, the Pentagon, Congress and the defense industry for nearly two decades as editor of NDIA’s National Defense...