Astroscale's ADRAS-J mission, to launch on a Rocket Lab Electron in 2023, will rendezvous with an inspect an upper stage from a Japanese rocket left in orbit. Credit: Astroscale

WASHINGTON — Developers of satellite servicing technologies expect interest in refueling and life extension to come from customers in geostationary orbit and beyond, while low Earth orbit operators instead seek end-of-life disposal services.

In discussions at the Global Satellite Servicing Forum, a conference by the industry group Consortium for Execution of Rendezvous and Servicing Operations (CONFERS), companies and organizations working on various satellite servicing approaches said they expected LEO constellation operators to seek their services to keep their orbits clean.

“The economics really start to make sense when you have operators that have hundreds, if not thousands, of satellites orbiting in a very close regime, where they have a direct vested interest in protecting that,” said Harriet Brettle, head of business analysis at Astroscale, a company working on several satellite servicing and disposal technologies.

Constellation operators, she said, will seek out end-of-life satellite disposal services to free up those orbits for replacement satellites. “That’s really where you can see protecting operational service, ensuring that you have a robust and responsible use of that space,” she said. “If you’re looking at putting your next fleet up there, you want to make sure you’re doing that in a way that you can continue to operate safely and sustainably.”

Trevor Bennett, co-founder of Starfish Space, another satellite servicing company, agreed. “What we’re going to have to do is maintain specific orbits, so the pain is going to be felt most by constellations,” he said. “The paying customer is not the one that’s occasionally dodging a fleck of paint or a piece of debris there. It is the one who has tens of satellites in an orbit and finds value in maintaining that orbital shell or orbital plane.”

Besides constellations, Brettle predicted governments would be customers for debris removal services in LEO for “legacy” debris. The Japanese space agency JAXA, for example, awarded a contract to Astroscale to inspect a spent Japanese rocket stage left in orbit, with later plans to remove the stage.

“It’s really a combination of looking to governments to address that legacy debris issue that we see, but also looking for satellite operators to take responsibility for the future orbital environment,” she said.

However, LEO constellations are unlikely to be customers for satellite life extension or other servicing, another panelist predicted. “Refueling in LEO only makes sense under a limited circumstance,” said Karl Stolleis, lead for space robotics and logistics at the Air Force Research Laboratory’s Space Vehicles Directorate.

He argued that the economics for refueling “proliferated LEO” constellations didn’t make sense. “It’s cheaper to just build a new satellite and launch one, and dispose of the old one, than it is to actually try to refuel it,” he said.

The situation is different in GEO, he argued. One approach he suggested is for GEO satellites to launch with a design life of 15 to 20 years that is standard for such spacecraft today, but with only a few years’ worth of fuel on board, decreasing their mass. Those satellites could then be regularly refueled by satellite servicing vehicles, which would also dispose the satellite in a graveyard orbit at the end of its life. “I think the real strength is in the GEO market,” he said.

Joe Anderson, vice president of business development and operations at SpaceLogistics, said his company is looking beyond the satellite life extension services in GEO it provides with its existing Mission Extension Vehicles and future Mission Robotic Vehicle. The company, a subsidiary of Northrop Grumman, is already working on a third-generation vehicle capable of refueling GEO satellites and performing active debris removal.

“The first place we see a potential paying customer is in GEO,” he said of debris removal applications. “It’s going to be around high-value assets that are concerned about some other failed objects in the vicinity.”

Satellite servicing becomes “an interesting case” for cislunar missions, Stolleis added. He was particularly interested in using servicing vehicles for proper disposal of lunar spacecraft at the end of their missions, rather than crashing them into the moon as is typically done today.

“We don’t have a viable disposal orbit, like we have in GEO,” he said of lunar missions. “The moon should not be our universal garbage dump.”

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...