From the steam engine locomotive to the personal computer, some technologies get a lot of credit for changing history.
Waves of major technological changes tend to point to a single development, but the reality is that sea changes are often made possible because additional, supporting technologies make adoption of a new machine accessible and extend the life and usefulness of new tools.
Cases in point: steam engines would not have been as useful without water stations positioned along standard-width rails, and personal computers wouldn’t have been as widely marketable without the integration of easily replaceable transistors in place of complicated vacuum tubes.
Karl Stolleis, team lead at the Air Force Research Lab’s Space Vehicles Directorate, believes the next wave of major technological change is happening now in space, and that the coming tsunami will be fueled by supporting technologies currently being developed in on-orbit servicing (refueling, repairing, or replacing assets in space), assembly (putting multiple parts together in space rather than launching as already completed structures), and manufacturing (fabricating components in space).
More commonly referred to as “OSAM,” this area of technology development will, in some ways, determine not just how we get to space, but will make it possible to benefit from being there long-term.
As Stolleis explains, “I like to say OSAM doesn’t make the thing. OSAM makes the thing that makes the things better.”
In other words, while rocket launches and satellite capabilities make headlines, the means to repair these technologies for sustainable use, and to build greater machines in space itself, is the real next step towards major change.
Many in the space community have traditionally seen OSAM technological developments as secondary to higher mission priorities. But they are now realizing exactly how critical these developments are to meaningful space development.
Five years ago there were less than 1800 active satellites in low Earth orbit (LEO), but now there are over 4,000. At the same time, there are nearly 30,000 pieces of trackable space debris orbiting at over 15,000 mph alongside these current machines These numbers are the harbinger of a coming traffic jam, which has many realizing the problem they will soon face has become more urgent.
“For a long time government and commercial entities have all thought, ‘This is a problem, but not my problem,’” Stolleis notes, indicating that OSAM developments, this often overlooked arena in the space economy, is finally getting its due.. “When I started, I was almost laughed out of people’s offices. Now, the same government figures who were not interested in OSAM are calling on me for meetings and briefs,” he says.
He is particularly enthusiastic about how developing new technologies for the ways we build serviceable satellites and extending the life of existing technology – the S in OSAM – is gaining recognition as a critical space-economy tipping point.
“Imagine,” he says, “A small fragment of space debris crashes through a satellite antenna in just the wrong spot. With the antenna knocked out, the whole satellite – potentially a billion dollar project – could stop working.” This is problematic under current operating practices because when the impact renders the satellite obsolete, a completely new satellite must be created and launched to replace it. “If the technology were available to fix the antenna, there would be a huge cost savings to the entire community,” he says, adding, “Let’s take a Department of Defense perspective: usually in a military conflict, if you lose something, the longer you are without it, the more people lose their lives. So, there is a growing recognition that if a small particle can take out an asset, it’s not just the billion dollars. When you have to start at square one, and when it can take years to build a new satellite, there is a huge opportunity cost.”
Aside from potential space debris collisions, maneuvers that draw from a finite amount of fuel also limit the lifespan of current satellites. When orbits decay or atmospheric drag in LEO forces satellites to stray from an intended course, teams on the ground or integrated autonomous programming make calculated decisions on how to adjust using thrusters with limited fuel. These maneuvers must be precisely choreographed in a gravityless ballet. Stolleis notes that as active technology and space debris increase in quantity there are more instances of companies utilizing thrusters to make maneuvers to avoid debris that were once reserved to remain in a particular functioning orbit.
“Right now, when you run out of fuel you’re done. You have to start over in this case too with a new satellite,” he says.
Current satellites in GEO (geosynchronous equatorial orbit) tend to use their last bit of fuel to launch themselves into an orbit-dependent graveyard farther out from the earth, and for satellites in LEO the last fuel may be reserved to drive the technology slowly into earth’s atmosphere, where it burns up on reentry. Reflecting on this process, Stolleis says, “Once it is possible to supply and service technology in space, rather than having to decommission it, then we are on a real path towards a sustainable future in space. This is another supporting point for why we are focused on developing refueling technologies as part of OSAM efforts.”
These are just some of the reasons why there is a growing call to develop refueling ports as part of emerging satellite designs and an increasing interest in supporting infrastructure that would enable refueling once ports are more common.
As part of the journey to further OSAM missions, in 2020 Stolleis joined the Hyperspace Challenge as a government scientist looking to engage new innovators developing OSAM-applicable technology. The program reinforced for him that the tides are clearly shifting.
During the Hyperspace Challenge, Stolleis worked closely with several teams including the Seattle-based startup, Starfish Space. Their team was developing tugs that will transport and service satellites on demand. The company’s autonomous satellite servicing technology enables it to extend the life and use of aging satellites, and remove space debris, more efficiently and effectively. This approach helped them take second place in the Challenge. And, Stolleis adds, “They really seized the opportunity that the Hyperspace Challenge provided. They proactively reached out to initiate a CRADA (Cooperative Research and Development Agreement) which is basically a commercial research and development contract where there’s no exchange of money. The collaboration comes in the form of time, data sharing, and technical help.” Startups and university teams who take the time to dig into the expertise of the connections made during Hyperspace Challenge are the groups Stolleis believes will be the most likely to succeed in the long run.
Beyond the teams from the 2020 Hyperspace Challenge, the momentum Stolleis began to see several years ago has intensified in the last two years.
In the fall of 2021 SpaceWERX, the space-focused arm of the Air Force technology incubator AFWERX launched Orbital Prime – specifically focused on supporting missions that address OSAM issues. Then in April 2022, the Biden Administration, via the Office of Science and Technology Policy, released a multi-agency supported plan, “In-Space Servicing, Assembly, and Manufacturing (ISAM) National Strategy.” Stolleis was a key member of a team of representatives from four departments and twelve distinct agencies that composed and reviewed the strategy.
While many of the working group’s agencies recognized that orbiting technology should be a main priority, for teams from NASA and with future commercial entities in mind, the applications to lunar bases and beyond were important to consider as well. So, the ISAM working group suggested expanding the importance of the work to an “in-space” paradigm over an “on-orbit” focus.
“There was some debate over OSAM or ISAM,” he explains, “but syntax aside, the end goal was to put some governmental heft behind the existing efforts that are out there today.”
The ISAM strategy outlines six goals that “chart a course for using a national approach to realize the opportunities enabled by ISAM.” The goals are:
(1) advance ISAM research and development;
(2) prioritize the expansion of scalable infrastructure;
(3) accelerate the emerging ISAM commercial industry;
(4) promote international collaboration and cooperation to achieve ISAM goals;
(5) prioritize environmental sustainability
(6) inspire a diverse future workforce as a potential outcome of ISAM innovation.
“It is a watershed document that spans all of government,” says Stolleis. Perhaps most importantly, the strategy shows that many government agencies beyond NASA are committed to furthering this area of the space economy. Now, agency staff and private entities can point to the strategy as they develop more concrete initiatives that support the government-backed goals.
“We’ve heard loud and clear for several years in the commercial sector that investors are hesitant and that companies don’t need government money, they need the government to say that this [ISAM/OSAM] is a thing,” says Stolleis. “I’m really starting to see that investors and innovators are committing to new ideas within OSAM and I am excited about what the future holds for the industry and more broadly for humanity.”