SAN FRANCISCO – Orbital Composites, a California company focused on robotic additive manufacturing, is gaining traction in the emerging in-space servicing, assembly and manufacturing sector thanks to government contracts and partnerships.
The U.S. Space Force, Air Force and Navy have awarded six Small Business Innovation Research contracts to the Campbell, California, startup in the last two years. In connection with the SBIRs and separately, Orbital Composites has projects underway with Axiom Space, Boeing, Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman.
In 2015, Cole Nielsen, Orbital Composites founder and chief technology officer, started designing 3D printers for large aerospace structures like drones and satellites in his garage. Since then, the startup has kept a low profile in the space sector.
“We were selling into the terrestrial market, while quietly working on the space side,” Amolak Badesha, Orbital Composites CEO, told SpaceNews. Still, as its name implies Orbital Composites was founded with the long-term goal of robotic in-space manufacturing.
Executives are now eager to talk about space applications because their “technology has matured to the point where we’re credible,” Badesha said. “We have 3D printed parts that are a game-changer for space, defense and energy applications.”
Plus, the company is riding tailwinds created by the rapid growth of the U.S. Space Force, increasing demand for in-space servicing, assembly and manufacturing (ISAM), heightened concern about orbital debris and the satellite-to-smartphone boom.
Orbital Composites participated in the 2021 Catalyst On-Orbit Servicing, Assembly and Manufacturing Accelerator backed by the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory’s Space Vehicles Directorate, the U.S. Space Force and corporate sponsors. Through the accelerator, Orbital Composites executives shared their goal of manufacturing antennas and other large structures with people from the Space Force, NASA and companies.
“One of the best use cases for in-space servicing, assembly and manufacturing is antennas,” Badesha said. “The satellite to cellular broadband market needs big antennas. Imagine if you could start making antennas in space, unfurlable antennas at the cost of fixed antennas.”
Core Manufacturing Capability
Under SBIR contracts, Orbital Composites is developing radiation tolerant satellites, technology to capture space debris, quantum antennas and robotic ISAM platforms. The company also is developing technology to 3D print thermal protection systems and rocket nozzles.
At its core, Orbital Composites is a manufacturing business.
“We hold the potential to become an aerospace and energy giant because our applications already span across these verticals,” Badesha said. “People forget, aerospace companies are built on top of advanced manufacturing.”
Space-Based Solar Power
On June 20, Orbital Composites announced a memorandum of understanding with Virtus Solis Technologies focused on a megawatt-scale commercial space-based solar power station. Under the agreement, Michigan-based Virtus will design core technologies. Orbital Composites will develop the necessary manufacturing processes and offer manufacturing-as-a-service to Virtus.
“This partnership is a significant step towards providing clean, low-cost energy to our planet and unlocking the potential of cislunar space,” Virtus CEO John Bucknell said in a statement. “By combining our breakthrough technologies with Orbital Composites’ expertise, we aim to revolutionize space-based solar power and accelerate the transition to a sustainable energy future.”