The government and military merits of on-orbit servicing

In my last post on the Government Satellite Report, I discussed a recent panel discussion that I attended hosted by the Washington Space Business Roundtable, a leadership forum comprised of the National Capital area’s satellite and space industry professionals and organizations. This panel discussion offered an incredible window into the world of on-orbit servicing and illustrated that commercial servicing of satellites in space may be a reality much sooner than many expected.

The experts on the panel included:

  • Rebecca Reesman, a member of the technical staff at the Aerospace Corporation
  • Tim Deaver, the Corporate Vice President of Development at SES Space and Defense
  • Todd Master, the Program Manager of the Tactical Technology Office at DARPA
  • Al Tadros, the Vice President of Civil and DoD Business at SSL
  • Joe Anderson, the Director of Mission Extension Vehicle Services at Orbital ATK

In my initial recap of the discussion, I looked at the technologies and new advancements that are making on-orbit servicing possible. I also explained why commercial satellite operators were so excited about the potential of servicing their satellites once they’re up in space. Now, I’d like to take a look at the specific government applications of this technology and the future advancements that on-orbit servicing could enable.

Similar but not exactly the same
As to be expected, many of the benefits that on-orbit servicing would deliver to the commercial satellite industry would be welcomed by the U.S. government and military. Those benefits included being able to service and refuel a satellite that has been launched to extend its life or help it bounce back from an anomaly. In fact, the government’s acquisition process may even make it more essential that satellites can be refueled and serviced in space.

As Todd Master discussed during the panel, “While the DoD isn’t new to long development timelines and expensive satellites, acquisitions have in some ways gotten away from us more and more in the last decade or two and these systems are incredibly expensive, but also incredibly valuable…”

As Todd pointed out, military satellites are a major expense to taxpayers. They also can take a long time to design, develop, build and launch. With satellites so mission-critical to the military, any anomaly that denies them the use of one or more satellites could eliminate important capabilities and have a significant, negative effect on the military’s ability to accomplish their mission.

Waiting to restore these services and capabilities until a new satellite can be launched would border on catastrophic. Being able to bring satellites back on-line via on-orbit servicing and repair would ultimately be faster, cheaper and more efficient – while also improving mission readiness and preparedness.

As space becomes more contested and our adversaries become increasingly capable of denying our satellite capabilities, this becomes increasingly important. But another potential, more futuristic solution could prove even more essential.

“…we’re seeing an increase in threats in space. The ability to…potentially add capabilities – such as defensive capabilities – is attractive.” – Todd Master, Program Manager, Tactical Technology Office at DARPA

Why stop at servicing…?
If we’re going to have robots service and refuel satellites on orbit, why stop there? Why not look even bigger picture? Why not shoot for something even more impressive and futuristic?

When our military designed its satellites in the past, they were designing them for a benign environment. There were no adversaries with our space capabilities, and the thought that our satellite capabilities could be denied probably sounded like something out of a science fiction novel or movie. As a result, no defensive systems were necessary, so no defensive systems were built onto satellites.

Well, science fiction has become reality. Our adversaries have become increasingly advanced and capable – and now our satellites are no longer operating in a veritable safe space. This sentiment was echoed by Gen. John “Jay” Raymond, the Commander of Air Force Space Command, in a memo to his personnel back in October, in which he wrote, “Space and cyberspace are no longer benign environments, they are contested operational domains.”

If we’re capable of interacting with satellites in space – refueling and repairing them – what is to keep us from taking the next logical step and adding capability to them? If satellites were built originally without defensive capability because that wasn’t necessary, could it be added by similar robotic means as in-orbit servicing?

The panelists and attendees from the commercial space industry were practically challenged to create that capability by Todd when he said, “…we’re seeing an increase in threats in space. The ability to…potentially add capabilities – such as defensive capabilities – is attractive.”

This ability to add payloads to existing satellites could come in handy for more than just adding defensive capabilities to existing military satellites.

Opening the door to more hosted payloads
Hosted payloads – the hosting of military payloads on commercially owned and operated satellites – is viewed across the government and industry as a way to help get military payloads into space faster and at a fraction of the cost. Ultimately, hosting payloads on commercial satellites allows the government to “hitch a ride” into space for its payload without having to build and launch a spacecraft itself.

Traditionally, this has been done while the satellite is still being built on Earth, but the ability to add payloads to on-orbit satellites could open the door to even more hosted payloads in the future – especially since this process would eliminate one of the largest challenges facing government hosted payloads today.

We reached out to Todd Gossett, the Senior Director of Hosted Payload Programs at SES Space and Defense to inquire into whether adding military payloads to commercial satellite on-orbit would be of interest to both parties, and why. According to Todd:

“That’s a good question, and the answer is,‘yes.’ One of biggest concerns keeping the federal government from embracing more hosted payload programs is that their payload won’t be ready in time to be mounted and tested on the satellite prior to the launch window. If payloads could be mounted following launch, it would eliminate this challenge. It could even be beneficial for sensitive payloads, since commercial partners on Earth would never need to interact with them.”

That’s good news to both the military and to taxpayers. Hosted payloads are widely viewed as a way to help increase the defensive posture of the military satellite network and architecture, since they effectively hide and distribute military payloads across commercial constellations. They’re also cheaper, which is great news for military budgets and the taxpayers footing the bill.

On-orbit servicing is exciting for the near-term capabilities it could enable – refueling and repairing already-launched satellites. It’s also exciting for the capabilities it could enable well into the future – which could include the addition of payloads to satellites in space, or even the construction of satellites in space. Regardless of which of those capabilities comes to fruition, it’s safe to say that the commercial space industry has a new area in which to innovate, and that new, exhilarating technologies could be on the horizon – technologies that deliver capabilities once thought impossible or unfeasible.

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