Industry group working on satellite servicing standards

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WASHINGTON — A satellite servicing industry group is making progress on a series of standards that it believes can help enable the growth of the nascent field.

In a presentation at its Global Satellite Servicing Forum Sept. 29, Brian Weeden, executive director of the Consortium for Execution of Rendezvous and Servicing Operations (CONFERS), said three standards are in various phases of development to support a “thriving and sustainable” satellite servicing industry.

Such standards in other industries, from automobiles to smartphones, have enabled the growth of an ecosystem of companies and products while also improving safety and reliability. “We don’t have any of that for satellites, in large part because we don’t have standards,” he said.

The first of those standards codifies a set of principles and best practices for satellite servicing that CONFERS developed, covering issues such as compliance with relevant laws and regulations as well as responsible operations. Weeden said CONFERS is updating those documents in the next month that reflect minor changes based on lessons learned from recent satellite servicing activities.

That standard will under the purview of the International Organization for Standardization, or ISO, and is formally designated ISO 24330. “They are using the CONFERS principles and practices as the baseline for what’s going to be the world’s first satellite servicing standard,” he said. A number of government and industry experts are working on the document, which he said should be finalized by the end of this year or early next year.

A second standard, development of which started earlier this year, is about fiducials, or markings on spacecraft used to support proximity operations. Those fiducials can help a servicing vehicle identify and properly approach a spacecraft.

Weeden said this standard is being developed with the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, which created a standards group with CONFERS members and other experts. He didn’t give a schedule for completing that standard.

Work recently started on a third standard covering refueling interfaces on spacecraft. “A standardized refueling interface is something that many satellite manufacturers and customers have said they would like to see in order to create a market for in-space refueling,” he said. CONFERS has established a committee to outline what that standard would be and expects to approach a standards development organization by early next year.

There has been some tension in the industry about the development of standards. Companies see the benefits of such standards, but also worry that establishing standards too early can stifle innovation.

NASA Deputy Administrator Pam Melroy, who helped established CONFERS when she was deputy director of DARPA’s Tactical Technology Office, threw her support behind standards development in a talk at the conference Sept. 29.

“I acknowledge that there is a legitimate tension between competing and collaborating, which is why some private companies aren’t quite ready to agree to develop standards,” she said.

She advocated for a “collaborate to compete” approach among companies in the industry, working together to create standards that can grow the industry and create more opportunities for companies to compete. That includes, she said, standards in grasping, manipulating, repairing and refueling spacecraft.

“Standards will help enable new business models, innovations and opportunities,” she said. “The lack of clear and widely accepted technical and safety standards for responsible performance is a still a major obstacle to satellite servicing, assembling and manufacturing.”

“We have to collaborate today,” she concluded. “We can grow the pie, and then people can compete for pieces of the pie later on.”