ORLANDO, Fla – A U.S. Space Force initiative aimed at catalyzing the market for on-orbit services is entering a decisive phase. Orbital Prime, now over two years old, awarded study contracts to more than 100 companies focused on In-Space Servicing, Assembly, and Manufacturing (ISAM). This includes a broad range of technologies, from robotics to advanced sensors to debris-capture devices.

The program downselected 41 companies that are now working under Phase 2 Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) contracts. SpaceWERX, the Space Force’s innovation arm that runs Orbital Prime, is now weighing next steps for the program, trying to gauge the maturity of technologies, their utility and possible commercialization paths.

The ultimate winners will be those that can bridge the gap to commercial markets, said Ellen Chang, a SpaceWERX adviser and head of space ventures at the consulting firm BMNT. 

Chang is meeting with the Orbital Prime cohort this week in Orlando, where the Space Force is hosting a Space Mobility Conference to discuss opportunities for the ISAM industry to capture new customers. 

BMNT is working under a $9 million contract in support of the SpaceWERX Orbital Prime cohort development program, which educates companies and helps them network with government buyers and private investors. “Our aim is to provide SpaceWERX with a portfolio view of how the cohort is doing and what risks are involved like fundraising, product development and supply chain,” Chang said. 

“We have 41 companies that are currently in their transition journey to support the ISAM market,” she said. “A crucial part of enabling innovation is making the connections between government and private companies. Our objective is also to support the government to constantly iterate on its approaches to becoming a great customer and partner to space companies.”

Phase 2 contracts

Over the past year SpaceWERX has awarded 20 Phase 2 contracts valued at $1.5 million each.  In addition, about 30 Orbital Prime projects were awarded direct-to-Phase 2 contracts valued at $1.7 million each.

When it comes to ISAM, Chang said, NASA and SpaceWERX are key to keep the market going given the economic environment and the downturn in venture funding, she said. 

As part of its contract with SpaceWERX, BMNT works with the Aerospace Corp. to assess companies and their projects. “We look at their technology readiness level, their supply chain fragility, and their ability to scale product development capability, because many of the companies are still research oriented companies.”

Chang said it’s notable that SpaceWERX puts a lot of emphasis on the commercialization of the technologies it funds, which ultimately benefits the government that will be a user of those products.

But the reality is that without government dollars, the future of Orbital Prime projects is highly uncertain, Chang pointed out.

“Scaling will take time and money,” she said. “SBIR funding only goes so far.” SpaceWERX is trying to build a pathway to keep tech development going, but it needs funding from Congress, and there are other priorities that the Space Force is trying to fund, “so it’s a struggle,” Chang said.

For space companies, “government is always an option but should not be the be-all and end-all,” she added. “You use the government money to de-risk your technology to figure out the commercial market.” This is the issue facing the Orbital Prime cohort: “how do we create or how do we stimulate the commercial market? … You can’t expect the government to just continue to hand out money.”

Companies in the Orbital Prime program:

  • Above Space
  • Acellent Technologies
  • Altius Space Machines, Inc.
  • Antaris Inc
  • Arkisys
  • Atomos Space
  • Big Metal Additive
  • Exploration Laboratories 
  • CisLunar Industries
  • City Labs, Inc
  • ControlX Engineering Inc.
  • Critical Innovations LLC
  • GreenSight
  • GridRaster Inc.
  • iMetalX, Inc.
  • Inversion
  • Jack Miller
  • Kall Morris Inc.
  • Lexsat.ai 
  • Lunar Outpost
  • Lunar Resources
  • Martian Sky Industries
  • Metis Design Corp.
  • Orbit Fab
  • Orbital Composites
  • Outpost
  • PickNik Inc.
  • Polaron Analytics
  • Quidient
  • RapidFort
  • Rebel Space Technologies
  • Rogue Space
  • Scientific Systems Company, Inc., 
  • Scout Space 
  • Sedaro
  • Simulation at Orion Center
  • Starfish Space
  • Ten One Aerospace
  • Toyon Research Corp.
  • Turion Space
  • Wallaroo.ai

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...