WASHINGTON — The U.S. Space Force is kicking off a new initiative to fund commercially developed technologies for orbital operations. 

The program known as “Orbital Prime” will focus on the emerging market sector known as OSAM, short for on-orbit servicing, assembly and manufacturing. This includes a broad range of technologies to repair and refuel existing satellites, remove orbital debris and create new capabilities in space.

Orbital Prime is run by SpaceWERX, the space-focused arm of the Air Force technology incubator AFWERX. In 2020 AFWERX sponsored Agility Prime, a project to advance the market for electric-powered pilotless aircraft that take off and land vertically. Orbital Prime will be a similar effort to spur government and private investment in OSAM technologies.

The plan is to award multiple Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) and Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) contracts. To compete for Orbital Prime awards, businesses have to partner with academic and nonprofit institutions. Teams can win up to $250,000 in the first round of contracts and up to $1.5 million in the second round. Successful projects will be eligible for much larger “strategic financing” awards that require companies to secure matching funds from private investors. Orbital Prime winners also will get non-monetary assists such as access to testing ranges and mentoring on regulatory and contracting processes.

Orbital Prime Phase 1 contracts could be awarded in early 2022. The goal is to launch an in-space demonstration within three years, Lt. Col. Brian Holt, co-lead of AFWERX Space Prime, told SpaceNews. 

Gabe Mounce, deputy director of SpaceWERX, said the entire project could be worth as much as $100 million although it has yet to be determined how much of that will be funded by the government and how much by the private sector. 

Mounce said Orbital Prime is intended to help “prime the pump, if you will, on a nascent market in national security space and signal to the industry what direction the government wants to go in.”

DoD investment ‘long overdue’

Space industry investors welcome initiatives like Orbital Prime, said Meagan Crawford, co-founder and managing partner of the venture capital firm SpaceFund.

The government as a market driver in the OSAM sector is “something that’s been talked about for a long time in this industry,” Crawford said. With Orbital Prime, the Space Force is “finally planting a flag” and putting in real money. 

Among the startups that will be competing for Orbital Prime contracts is Rogue Space Systems. CEO Jeromy Grimmett said the company is working on a cubesat designed to perform in-orbit inspections of other satellites or debris objects. 

A Space Force program focused on orbital capabilities is “long overdue,” said Grimmett, as the United States is behind other countries in developing technologies to de-orbit satellites and clean up debris

“I think SpaceWERX is going to provide a great pathway to help us advance technologies and start getting ahead and leading the world in these capabilities,” Grimmett said. “The market, I really believe, is going to drive some pretty interesting ideas.”

Even though a $250,000 SBIR award is not a large sum, “it’s a start,” he said. “A lot of small companies like us, we need the signal. We need the endorsement. And then the private capital is eventually going to take over.”

A company that wins a Phase 1 award, after a performance period of 90 to 120 days can compete for Phase 2 awards of $1 million. The big prize is strategic financing, or STRATFI, which can reach $30 million when combined with private matching investments. 

“That is not going to build a fleet, but it will definitely get you going in the right direction,” said Grimmett.

It’s not just technology that is needed to conduct orbital operations, he said. “You also need a strategy” and a plan for the deployment of spacecraft. In space, just like on Earth, “it’s all about location, location, location.”

Sandra Erwin writes about military space programs, policy, technology and the industry that supports this sector. She has covered the military, the Pentagon, Congress and the defense industry for nearly two decades as editor of NDIA’s National Defense...