The Satellite Servicing Industry Prepares to Take Flight

by

After years of development, the nascent field of satellite servicing is going corporate. Literally.

At the end of the two-day Global Satellite Servicing Forum Oct. 20 in Arlington, Virginia, Chris Blackerby, chair of the Consortium for Execution of Rendezvous and Servicing Operations — known by the somewhat contorted acronym CONFERS — took the stage for an announcement. The organization started five years ago with the support, including seed funding, from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency to help create standards for satellite servicing.

Now, as planned, DARPA was winding down its participation in CONFERS. “We are getting kicked out of the DARPA nest,” he said, illustrating that with a slide showing a baby bird getting booted from a nest. “It highlights the spreading of our wings as CONFERS takes off.”

That transition brings with it a lot of paperwork and related activity as the organization stands up on its own, from hiring staff to recruiting new corporate members. As part of that process, the organization filed papers in Delaware to incorporate as a nonprofit organization known simply as CONFERS. “It is just CONFERS. Just the acronym,” he said.

That corporate transition comes as the industry itself is spreading its wings. Questions about the technical feasibility of servicing satellites have faded thanks to efforts like the two Mission Extension Vehicles (MEVs) developed by Northrop Grumman, which are currently extending the lives of two Intelsat communications satellites in GEO. Others are making progress on similar vehicles or related technologies, such as refueling.

The industry is shifting from whether satellites can be serviced to how it can be done safely and profitably. That brings a new set of challenges for the industry, from developing standards to identifying customers and grappling with an uncertain regulatory environment.

ECONOMICS OF REFUELING

Satellite servicing is part of a broader field known today as in-space servicing, assembly and manufacturing, or ISAM (a phrase that has replaced OSAM, or on-orbit servicing, assembly and manufacturing, reflecting the potential use of those technologies beyond Earth orbit.) The near-term focus, though, has been on the servicing part of ISAM, primarily life extension and refueling.

“Almost 10 years ago, we recognized about 15 GEO satellites a year reached their end of lives,” recalled Robert Hauge, president of SpaceLogistics, the wholly owned Northrop Grumman subsidiary that operates the MEVs, “simply because they were running out of fuel.”

Demand from GEO satellites constituted that early demand for MEVs as well as the company’s next-generation system, the Mission Robotic Vehicle, a servicing spacecraft that will install Mission Extension Pods onto satellites to handle propulsion and attitude control. Those new vehicles, he said, recently passed their critical design reviews and are on track to launch in 2024.

Optus, the Australian GEO satellite operator, has signed up as the customer for the first Mission Extension Pod. Hauge said his company has taken deposits for two other pods and signed term sheets with “a number of other operators” whose identity he did not disclose.

Those operators think that the costs of SpaceLogistics’ life-extension services — which the company has not disclosed — is a better deal than investing in a new satellite. That is true for other ventures offering refueling services, either for satellites themselves or for servicing spacecraft.

“Refueling is really a force multiplier,” said Daniel Faber, chief executive of Orbit Fab, a company developing satellite refueling services. “Simply put, you can reduce costs and increase revenue.”

Reduction in costs, he noted, comes from changing the design of satellites to take advantage of refueling architectures. Satellites can be smaller, he argued, since they don’t need to carry a lifetime’s worth of fuel, making them cheaper to build and launch. Increased revenue, he said, comes from being able to put satellites into service more quickly. “You don’t have to worry about taking the most efficient thruster system. You can take the thruster system that’s going to get you earning the money the quickest.”

That last point could reverse a trend in recent years of increased use of electric propulsion systems, which are more efficient but provide lower thrust. “The reason we did electric propulsion was fuel efficiency, because it cost so much to launch and you had one tank of gas,” he said. That reversal could be accelerated by spiking prices for xenon, commonly used in electric propulsion systems, which Faber estimated had gone from $5,000 to $40,000 per kilogram this year because of increased demand from the semiconductor industry.

The Mission Robotic Vehicle, shown with DARPA’s RSGS Robotic Payload is pioneering robotic servicing of satellites. Credit: SpaceLogistics

One challenge for the economics of refueling, though, has been figuring out a price. In August, Orbit Fab set for the first time a price for refueling satellites in GEO: $20 million for up to 100 kilograms of hydrazine, starting as soon as 2025. “There hasn’t been certainty in the market about what it would cost to do a refueling,” said Adam Harris, vice president of business development at Orbit Fab.

Harris said Orbit Fab had heard from a few customers who “expressed explicit interest” in refueling, but has not announced any customers beyond an earlier deal with another satellite servicing company, Astroscale, to provide its servicing spacecraft with xenon propellant later this decade.

Other factors could push for greater use of satellite refueling and life extension. Mark Dickinson, deputy chief technology officer and vice president of the space segment at Inmarsat, noted higher interest rates will make access to capital, including for new satellites, more difficult and more expensive.

There is also limited commercial launch capacity in the near future given the withdrawal of Russia from the market and constellations like Amazon’s Project Kuiper buying dozens of launches. “There’s not much launch capacity available” outside of SpaceX, he said.

That could lead operators to look for ways to get more out of their existing satellites. “The business case is pretty obvious,” he said. “I think operators have a better understanding of the potential upside.”

DEBATING STANDARDS

Inmarsat’s satellites, Dickinson noted, are not designed for servicing: no refueling ports, docking adapters or other interfaces. “We’re hesitant until we understand where the standards are going to be,” he said. “What we don’t want to do is go with the Betamax version.”

Standards are an area of tension for the satellite servicing industry. Customers like Inmarsat are reticent to pay for servicing interfaces for satellites without an assurance they will be supported when needed, something standards offer.

“As a manufacturer, we foresee our future satellites will be prepared with interfaces” for servicing, said Sabrina Andiappane, head of on-orbit servicing at Thales Alenia Space. “But without specific standards, we’re wondering what to put on our satellites at this point.”

However, companies in the servicing industry, still developing key technologies, are worried standards could stifle innovation. “I grew up as a technology developer with a great disdain for standards,” said Bo Naasz, who leads rendezvous and capture system capability development at NASA.

He said he understands the conflict between developers who don’t want detailed standards and satellite owners who want to ensure their satellites can be serviced. “Whenever I talk to people about standards, they think I mean defining the exact interface, the size of the fueling port that I’m going to stick the hose into,” he said. “That’s really not what we mean.”

Rather than specific technical requirements like that, he said, industry is moving in the direction of “functional” standards that address the performance of refueling systems, like limits on leak rates during the refueling process.

One such standard is under development by the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) for satellite refueling. A draft of that standard should be available for public review by the end of the year, said Fred Slane, executive director of the Space Infrastructure Foundation, a proponent of standards.

“It will be functional,” Naasz said of that proposed standard. “It will drive specifications, which will be prescriptive. I think it will result in refueling systems that can be flown on spacecraft and make them refuelable.”

“Standards will grow the market,” said Joe Anderson, vice president of business development and operations at SpaceLogistics. But, he acknowledged, there is the risk standards could inhibit innovation. “That’s a real challenge that we at CONFERS is facing.”

He said CONFERS is trying to address that by developing recommendations for standards like refueling interfaces and passing them along to standards development organizations. “We’re going to have a lot of innovation happening around those standards, a lot of discovery and experience,” he said. “Over time, we think there will be some industry adoption, which will lead us [to] a particular form, fit and function.”

REGULATORY ISSUES

Satellite servicing ventures in the United States face another challenge: a regulatory environment that requires them to go to several agencies, none of whom can provide all of the approvals needed to fly their missions.

Anderson recalled having its first meeting with a regulator, the Federal Aviation Administration, in 2012, which led to an interagency payload review. “That revealed that we have a big gap here in the U.S. regulatory environment,” he said.

The result was years of discussions with other agencies, like the Federal Communications Commission and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which licenses imaging systems that include the cameras on SpaceLogistics’ MEVs. “In the end, it all worked out. We were able to establish a way we could be regulated and be overseen,” he said.

That experience is one of the reasons why there’s a renewed push for a new “mission authorization” regime to provide the authorization and continuing supervision of space activities required by the Outer Space Treaty. “ISAM capabilities are almost like a forcing function, if you will, for us to look at a whole bunch of different things that fall outside our current licensing frameworks,” said Diane Howard, director of commercial space policy at the National Space Council.

At the council’s most recent public meeting in September, Vice President Kamala Harris called for proposed frameworks for mission authorization within 180 days. The council is hosting two “listening sessions” in November, one on new space capabilities that could be considered under mission authorization and the other on approaches to provide authorization and supervision.

Howard suggested that, by the time the 180 days are up, the administration may be ready to discuss what framework it would like to adopt rather than just accept proposals from agencies. “We’ll have something from the executive branch by March 7,” she said.

At the same time, the industry has been watching actions by the FCC, which opened a “notice of inquiry” over the summer on ISAM, seeking feedback on issues such as access to spectrum for satellite servicing missions and orbital debris regulations. That’s led some to worry the FCC might be trying to take on that mission authorization role.

“Some people can look at that and take that as a sign that the FCC may try to overreach,” said Laura Cummings, regulatory affairs council at Astroscale U.S. “I look at that and take that as a sign that this is my opportunity to tell the FCC that they are not a mission authorization body.”

In a Nov. 3 speech, FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel announced a proposed restructuring of the commission that would create a Space Bureau dedicated to space regulatory issues. However, she said that change was meant to address current work in satellite licensing.

“The changes I am announcing today are not about taking on new responsibilities at the FCC,” she said at a Satellite Industry Association event. “They are about performing our existing statutory responsibilities better and freeing up resources to help focus on our mission.”

Both Cummings and Anderson said that there will be a role for the FCC, as well as the International Telecommunication Union, in identifying spectrum allocations for ISAM missions. For the two MEV missions, Anderson said they relied on spectrum from its customer, Intelsat, but called that a short-term fix.

“Going forward, as we start doing more servicing, we’re going to be maneuvering around much more frequently,” he said. “You need more assurance about access to spectrum.”

All that suggests that there will be no shortage of issues for CONFERS to take on as the satellite servicing industry, like the organization itself, takes flight.

This article originally appeared in the November 2022 issue of SpaceNews magazine.