CONFERS Global Satellite Servicing Forum (GSSF) Trip Report

David Hurst is the CEO of Orbital Transports, Inc., located in Chicago, IL.

On October 19 and 20, 2022, I attended the fifth Global Satellite Servicing Forum (GSSF), hosted by the Consortium for Execution of Rendezvous and Servicing operations (CONFERS). CONFERS is an industry-led initiative aiming to leverage best practices from government and industry to research, develop, and publish non-binding, consensus-derived technical and operations standards for on-orbit servicing (OOS) and remote proximity operations (RPO).  These standards are intended to provide the foundation for a new commercial repertoire of robust space-based capabilities and a future in-space economy. 

GSSF is the premier event for the on-orbit servicing and in-space assembly and manufacturing (ISAM) community and featured leading commercial and government satellite operators, satellite manufacturers, satellite servicing providers, policy leaders, and financial and insurance experts from around the world. Speakers and panelists discussed growth in the satellite servicing industry, promising new opportunities in satellite servicing, the need for standards and regulation, current practices, and results from operational experiences.

Up from only a few companies just a few years ago, the OOS sector currently boasts of 103 companies now developing in-space servicing, assembly, and manufacturing products and services. Seven providers are operational today, and 12 companies are preparing to demonstrate capabilities as soon as next year. 

The first on-orbit servicing missions were flown starting in 1981 on the Space Shuttle, including repair and upgrading the Hubble Space Telescope. Building on the experience with the Shuttle, the International Space Station was designed with servicing and upgrading in mind. Numerous ORUs (Orbital Replacement Units) are parts of the main system and subsystems of the external elements of the ISS, including pumps, storage tanks, controller boxes, antennas, and battery units. ORUs are typically serviced by either astronauts during EVA or using the DEXTRE robotic arm. 

Beyond the ISS, there have been three satellite servicing missions flown to date. Northup-Gruman’s Mission Extension Vehicle (MEV) is designed to provide extended thrust and maneuvering capabilities for clients that have run out of propellant. The MEV-1 mission rendezvoused with the defunct Intelsat 901 satellite in a graveyard orbit on February 25, 2020 and was able to reposition the communications satellite so that it could come back online in its designated geosynchronous spot. On April 12, 2021, the MEV-2 mission successfully attached to the client Intelsat 10-02 satellite during normal operations with no disruptions in service. Astroscale launched the ELSA-d mission to demonstrate a key capability for removing orbital debris, namely docking with a client, such as a defunct satellite. On August 25, 2021, ELSA-d successfully docked tested its capability to capture a client spacecraft using the servicer’s magnetic capture system. 

Up and coming OOS companies include Orbit Fab, SCOUT Space, Kall-Morris, Inc., and Starfish Space. Orbit Fab developed the Tenzing mission to demonstrate spacecraft refueling. The Tenzing spacecraft was launched on June 30, 2021, and carries 10 liters of high-test peroxide propellant and a Rapidly Attachable Fluid Transfer Interface (RAFTI) to enable transfer to a client satellite. Orbit Fab’s intention is to build a propellant supply chain to support the in-space economy. Designing satellites to be refueled means that they don’t have to carry an entire mission’s worth of propellant at launch. The capital expense of launching all the required propellant with the spacecraft can be converted to operational expense during the mission lifetime. The satellite can be smaller and consequently will be less expensive, faster to build, and cost less to launch. 

SCOUT Space is developing in-space observation technologies for space domain awareness. The Earth space environment is becoming very crowded. Ground observation can’t keep up with the growth in not just orbital debris but the expansion of mega-constellations. The environment is also unpredictable. SpaceX recently lost 40 Starlink satellites during a launch because of a solar flare and the consequent geomagnetic storm. SCOUT is building space-based observation systems with high fidelity imaging to collect 3-D data about objects in orbit. They are aiming for full coverage of LEO with turnkey tracking and traffic solutions.

Kall-Morris, Inc., is also addressing concerns about orbital debris in low Earth orbit with active debris removal technologies. They are focused on dealing with objects lacking convenient docking plates, such as abandoned upper stage rocket bodies. Their technologies support the final approach, rendezvous, and capture of objects tumbling out of control. Such objects could then be either deorbited or transferred to on-orbit recycling and remanufacturing facilities once they become available.

Another company planning to deal with active debris removal, in both low Earth orbit and geosynchronous orbit, is Starfish Space. Their technology stack includes software components to handle guidance, navigation, and control for remote proximity operations and docking (RPOD). They have already developed navigation software to support RPOD, which is currently being demonstrated on the aforementioned Tenzing mission. 

A significant theme during GSSF was the need for consistent technical standards and for development of policy and regulatory frameworks to support OOS. Several companies are developing refueling interfaces (like Orbit Fab’s RAFTI, mentioned above) and these will need to become standardized for an OOS economy to become really viable. The U.S. government has historically regulated communications and Earth observation satellites. These regulations assumed that a spacecraft would go to a particular orbit and stay there, but OOS doesn’t fit into either of those two categories and involves spacecraft moving from orbit to orbit and conducting close approaches with potentially many other satellites. Currently, too many U.S. government agencies are involved in licensing and regulating OOS activities, including FCC, FAA, and NOAA. A whole-of-government approach is needed. Furthermore, other countries are developing OOS capabilities and there is a need for interoperable regulations between nations. Unfortunately, the current U.S. export control regulations (i.e., ITAR and EAR) are an inhibitor to international cooperation. OOS operations will be conducted through commercial agreements between consenting parties using accepted contractual practices. Transparency of intention is a necessity to distinguish between benign rendezvous and docking for satellite servicing operations and more malevolent close approach between two spacecraft. 

My biggest take-away from the conference is that the on-orbit servicing industry is growing rapidly. It’s exciting to see so many new companies developing technologies and capabilities for OOS and ISAM. This is only the beginning of a brand-new industry and I look forward to watching and participating in it as it grows and develops.

David Hurst is the CEO of Orbital Transports, Inc., located in Chicago, IL.

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