WASHINGTON — An emerging sector of the space industry is focused on servicing satellites in orbit, providing refueling, life extension and repair services. NASA has embraced this technology and plans to launch its own On-orbit Servicing, Assembly, and Manufacturing OSAM-1 mission in 2024 to refuel an aging satellite and assemble hardware in space.

The Space Force, which operates more than 100 satellites for the U.S. military, has yet to figure out how to take advantage of this technology, said Karl Stolleis, space logistics and robotics lead at the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory.

“I think we’re struggling with it little bit and I think it’s because we don’t understand the mission,” Stolleis said Nov. 16 at the ASCEND conference organized by the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics. 

Stolleis said the Space Force does not view OSAM as a mission in and of itself, but as a supporting set of technologies. While these technologies are rapidly advancing, the military culture has not yet caught up, he said. 

“Unlike NASA, we don’t have 30 years of history or 40 years of history of working in space,” Stolleis said. To a military satellite operator, the idea of moving a satellite “installs panic” as it requires multiple layers of approvals and signatures even to relocate a satellite “a tiny little bit.”

“That’s how we’ve flown satellites for 40 to 50 years,” he said. The notion that satellites could be serviced in orbit strikes many Space Force as a fantasy. “They think this is 2035 when we’re talking about refueling, that’s Buck Rogers to them when you show them what companies are doing.”

Northrop Grumman, for example, has two Mission Extension Vehicles in orbit providing station-keeping services for two Intelsat geostationary satellites that were running low on fuel.

“We’re just starting to get our heads around it,” Stolleis said.

Introducing capabilities to refuel satellites would be game changing, he added. The military avoids maneuvering satellites because it consumes precious fuel. “Every spacecraft that’s up there right now, if you move it, you shorten its lifespan. So we are loathe to move any spacecraft out there for any reason.”

Commercial satellites in orbit already are being serviced

Joseph Anderson, director of Mission Extension Vehicles at  Northrop Grumman, said the company’s second generation servicing vehicle will combine the existing commercial MEV with a robotic payload developed by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. 

The Mission Robotic Vehicle will upgrade geostationary satellites with small propulsion devices, adding six years of life.

Stolleis said the Space Force gradually has to familiarize itself with these new capabilities and figure out how to procure them.

“It think that very soon, you will see from the U.S. government an RFP [request for proposals] for a spacecraft that will actually be purpose built to be refueled,” he said. “So that’s the first step that we need to take.”

Another exciting prospect is the ability to update satellites’ computers, Stolleis said, “so we’re not flying a radiation hardened processor that was designed 30 years ago.”

If processors can be replaced on a regular basis, “I can make a spacecraft smarter every time in the same way that your phone gets smart every time you get a new one or you add some new app.”

The ability to keep a satellite in operation for decades but also add new features and technologies “makes perfect sense” for the Defense Department which today operates weapons systems that were developed during the Cold War. 

“If you look at the B-52 bombers that are flying right now, most went into service in the 50s and 60s They’re still flying but they’ve been rebuilt multiple times,” he said, suggesting that paradigm could extend to space. 

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...