Orbital Composites is developing and space-qualifying technology to additively manufacture antennas and other large structures in orbit. Credit: Orbital Composites

SAN FRANCISCO — Orbital Composites will space qualify technology to manufacture antennas in orbit under a $1.7 million U.S. Space Force contract announced July 13.

The Small Business Innovation Research contract, awarded through the SpaceWERX Orbital Prime program, gives an important boost to the Campbell, California, startup’s plans for in-space servicing, assembly and manufacturing, Amolak Badesha, Orbital Composites co-founder and CEO, told SpaceNews. “We’re talking about printing outside of the space station and printing much larger structures over time.”

Working with partners Axiom Space, Northrop Grumman and the Southwest Research Institute, Orbital Composites will test robotic technology to 3D print antennas for satellite-based cellular broadband and kilometer-scale antennas for space-based solar power. The goal is to ensure the technology can withstand the temperature extremes and radiation of spaceflight, Badesha said.

“This prestigious SBIR award, coupled with our partnerships with Axiom Space, Northrop Grumman, and SwRI, marks a crucial juncture in our journey,” Cole Nielsen, Orbital Composites founder and chief technology officer, said in a statement. “Our Space Factories will leverage advanced robotics and autonomous systems to build high-performance antennas in space, reducing the cost” by more than 100-fold.

In June, Orbital Composites announced plans to work with Michigan-based Virtus Solis Technologies to develop a megawatt-scale space-based solar power station.

Axiom Space Station

Axiom is currently conducting private astronaut flights to the International Space Station and developing space suits. The company’s long-term goal is establishing a private space station.

Under the direct to phase 2 Orbital Prime contract, Orbital Composites and Axiom will design an in-space servicing, assembly and manufacturing laboratory that resides outside the Axiom space station. In addition to antennas, elements of the Axiom space station could be 3D printed in the laboratory.

“The future of the in-space economy relies on large-scale, in-space manufacturing and assembly,” Jason Aspiotis, Axiom director of in-space infrastructure and logistics, said in a statement. “The strategic partnership [with Orbital Composites] offers both companies a chance to accelerate their shared mission of advancing humanity’s presence in space.” 

SpaceLogistics Partnership

Orbital Composites is working with SpaceLogistics, a Northrop Grumman subsidiary, on geostationary applications for in-space servicing, assembly and manufacturing.

Space Logistics plans to launch its first Mission Robotic Vehicle in 2025. The MRV is equipped with robotic arms to install Mission Extension Pods on Optus and Intelsat communications satellites.

“On the GEO side, we’re thinking about extending servicing and about in-space assembly,” Badesha said.

Southwest Research Institute’s Role

SwRI will contribute software to ensure Orbital Composites’ in-space servicing, assembling and manufacturing technology can operate with a high degree of autonomy.

“ISAM is incredibly important for the development and utilization of space,” says Branson Brockschmidt, SwRI senior robotics research engineer, said in a statement. “In partnering with Orbital Composites on this SpaceWERX Orbital Prime SBIR, we intend to design and test systems in vacuum and thermal conditions to advance robotic ISAM.”

Orbital Composites plans to establish its first Space Factory in three to five years.

Debra Werner is a correspondent for SpaceNews based in San Francisco. Debra earned a bachelor’s degree in communications from the University of California, Berkeley, and a master’s degree in Journalism from Northwestern University. She...