SSL satellite servicing concept
An illustration of Space System Loral's concept for a satellite servicing system it is developing with DARPA. Credit: SSL

WASHINGTON — Operating while in orbit is the next big challenge for the space sector, be it manufacturing, assembly, satellite servicing, or debris removal, experts said Thursday.

Speaking at a technology summit hosted by Defense One, Bhavya Lal, with the Institute for Defense Analysis at the Science and Technology Policy Institute, said focusing on the problems of the future will help the U.S. maintain its technological lead in space.

“One of the things we need to worry about is what are going to be the emerging technologies a decade from now so we can stay ahead of the Russia’s and China’s?” she said. “One potential technology that both the government and the private sector are starting to look at is on-orbit manufacturing, assembly, and servicing. I think it’s an area we need to think about more, we need to bring the private sector in more, the government needs to think differently about how you construct and use an on-orbit platform in the case of war.”

It’s something both the government and private industry are looking at now. NASA is trying to launch the Restore-L mission in 2020, which will demonstrate a robotic spacecraft designed for on-orbit servicing. The military’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is developing its own Robotic Servicing of Geosynchronous Satellites (RSGS) program with satellite builder Space Systems Loral, who last month launched a new company —  Space Infrastructure Services LLC — to commercialize the  service. Meanwhile, spacecraft builder Orbital ATK a is working on a competing commercial capability, with communications fleet operator Intelsat already signed up as a client.

Innovation — like on-orbit manufacturing — will help the U.S. stay at the cutting edge more so than just trying to protect existing secrets, Lal said.

“We just have to work really hard to stay ahead of the curve,” she said. “It’s probably correct that others are copying what we’re doing, but I think we should just remember that they’re also developing very cutting edge indigenous technologies, so I think we shouldn’t just assume that all we need to do is protect our stuff and we’re good…We need to be able to walk and chew gum at the same time: worry about the problems today but also about the problems we need to be thinking about ten years from now.”

Another key on-orbit topic that should be addressed is debris removal, said Richard Leshner, vice president of policy at Planet — a Silicon Valley company with ongoing efforts to operate a large constellation of small satellites that photograph the entire surface of the Earth everyday.

Orbiting debris is the biggest risk to the long-term health of the space environment, Leshner said, and the biggest threat to the domain’s continued use.

“It’s worth a lot of thought about what are some new opportunities and what are some new missions, so not just in space manufacturing and development, but also is it time to start thinking very seriously about active space debris removal?” he said. “What are the methods by which you do that, and how do you coordinate and collaborate internationally to make sure no one misconstrues an effort to do something like that as a hostile act.”

“I think that’s a key set of questions that policy makers, that government program managers, that private sector folks are all going to have to be wrestling with in the very near future, if not immediately,” Leshner said.

Lal said the U.S. is going to need to take a look at some of its policies and regulations surrounding orbital debris removal.

“There’s companies outside the United States that are starting to think about debris mitigation, and these companies are actively not looking at offices in the United States because they worry that there would be restrictions,” she said. “So coming to the policy issue, what do we need to do to make sure that we are making the United States a place where companies want to be?”

The good news is that technology — and the launch industry to get it there — have developed to the point that it’s now possible to test out these technologies in orbit, Leshner said.

“You can start doing real-time hardware experiments in space, in a demonstration, an exploitation way, where you can ask is it feasible to do X, find a partner, go make X happen in 12 to 18 months, with actual spacecraft and in some cases multiple spacecraft doing that demo for you and providing real data,” he said. “You could test it out, you could experiment it, you could have real data on what your answer is as opposed to just having it on paper. I think that’s the biggest thing that’s changed, you can go and do that now if you put the effort in.”

Phillip Swarts is the military space reporter for SpaceNews. He previously covered space and advanced technology for Air Force Times, the Justice Department for The Washington Times, and investigative journalism for the Washington Guardian;...