In-Orbit Servicing & Manufacturing
The benefits of IOSM to the UK economy
In orbit servicing and manufacturing is a relatively new domain within the space sector, which is now growing significantly due to technology advancements, innovation and the dramatic increase in the number of satellites and spacecraft being launched into Low Earth Orbit (LEO).
IOSM Missions and services benefit the economy in a number of ways: Life extension and servicing missions allow satellite operators to provide their commercial services (e.g. communications) for longer. Space Debris Removal missions and services serve to safeguard the space environment for future users, assuring the sustainability and availability of space for future commercial missions and users. In space manufacturing and assembly services have the potential to reduce overall mission costs and also open up new markets and space applications.
In Orbit Servicing – Life Extension
SpaceLogistics’ Mission Extension Vehicle-2 (MEV-2) is designed to approach and dock with Geostationary satellites and provide propulsion and attitude control in order to extend their life. The first successful mission took place in April 2021. Astroscale and other organisations are developing similar vehicles and service offerings.
Active (Space) Debris Removal
Astroscale’s ELSA-d (End-of-Life Services by Astroscale - demonstration) satellite was launched in March 2021 and successfully demonstrated the ability to capture a client satellite by means of magnetic capture in August 2021. Astroscale have also been selected by JAXA to undertake the first phase of the Commercial Removal of Debris Demonstration project (CRD2) which requires a spacecraft to approach a depleted upper stage Japanese rocket body and gather data required to prepared for the 2nd phase, during which a second spacecraft will capture the rocket body.
Did you know?
As of November 2021, and according to ESA’s database, there have been around 6120 launches since the start of the space age in 1957, which together have placed around 12,170 satellites in Earth Orbit. Of these, around 7630 are still in space, and only around 4700 of these are still functioning. This means that there are more than 2900 inactive and uncontrolled satellites which are potentially hazardous and will need to be removed in some way in the future. As is the case with climate change on earth, the vast majority of ‘the problem’ was created during a time period when many launches were strategic or military in nature, where space sustainability was not considered at all. Thankfully, space fairing nations and agencies tend to be more responsible these days in terms of adhering to guidelines for the responsible use of space, but this does not help solve the problem caused by the thousands of satellites which were launched without consideration of this.
We expect all of the applications within the IOSM domain to progress rapidly and join other established applications (Earth observation, communications etc.) at a routine, operational status within the space sector over the next 10-15. The various applications within the domain are at different levels of maturity, and are therefore expected to mature and become fully established in different timeframes. A few offerings in the Life Extension Services for Geostationary satellites domain are already established with a few more market entrants expected to be offering commercial services with the next 2-5 years. Commercial Services for Active Debris Removal of Satellites are expected to emerge in a similar timeframe, following on from the ongoing in orbit demonstration missions being undertaken by various organisations in 2021-2. In space manufacturing and Assembly is at a lower level of maturity and is therefore likely to become established more in the 5-10 year timeframe.
By the 2030s, we would expect all of the applications within the IOSM domain to be well established, with satellites and missions routinely making use of in-orbit servicing and re-fuelling capabilities and services, with elements of on-orbit production and assembly also becoming more routine and popular in that timeframe.
Innovation is required within the economic aspects of many IOSM applications as well as innovations in technology and capabilities. The business models, and means for revenue and profit generation can be quite different from more traditional and straightforward space industry revenue models, where (for example) customers either buy satellites in their entirety and/or buy the data generate by/from satellites. Service based models are likely to the most popular/widespread, where customers (users of the various services, such as refuelling, life extension and/or repositioning/orbital transfer) would likely pay a ‘pay as you use’ type fee, with other models such as subscription based approaches also being possible. These principles would also likely need to be applied for active debris removal type services, with the challenge being to establish who pays, how, and how much, for the service.
In addition, there are typically relatively high up-front costs associated with the types of missions and applications within the IOSM domain, which will also need to be built in to any business and finance models.