Space Force Invests in System for Building and Modifying Satellites—in Orbit

Building satellites is hard enough on Earth, but a group of companies just received a contract from the U.S. Space Force that could pave the way to building satellites in orbit.

Announced March 20, the goal of the $1.6 million award is to demonstrate building a standalone satellite on Earth using a module the companies hope to one day use to build new satellites or modify existing ones in orbit.

“This award opens up a unique methodology to support on-orbit flexibility, mission change in flight, high fidelity manipulation, and assembly of complex objects,” Dave Barnhart, CEO and cofounder of Arkisys Inc., one of the companies, said in a statement.

The other companies are Qediq Inc, NovaWurks, Motive Space Systems, iBoss, and a state research agency, the Texas A&M Engineering Experiment Station (TEES). According to a statement released by Arkisys, the contractors will work together to demonstrate “the building of a standalone 3-axis stabilized satellite on the Port Module.”

Three-axis satellites use small thrusters or electronically-powered reaction wheels to maintain stability in orbit, according to NASA. The Port is a hexagonal platform built by Arkisys which the company hopes to someday launch into space and serve as a sort of seaport for satellites. Once docked with the Port, spacecraft could be repaired, upgraded, or even put together using the platform’s robot arm, the company proposes. Customers could also lease bays for research or manufacturing purposes.

“In many countries, ports act as a nexus for goods, materials, services, and business, to the point that significant percentages of a country’s GDP flows through them,” Arkisys wrote in a paper for the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics. “’The Port’ is not just an outpost destination in orbit, but a business mechanism to unlock new sources of actions and activities in space and capitalize on existing and ‘undiscovered’ markets.”

The concept of satellite ports in orbit dovetails with the Space Force’s effort to make U.S. satellite networks more resilient. Last month, Col. Meredith Beg, the deputy director of operations for space mobility and logistics, said Space Systems Command is exploring how it could use commercial capabilities to “maneuver and service its constellation of satellites in GEO, including adjusting satellites’ inclination, changing orbital slots, refueling satellites that are low on fuel, and tugging assets to a graveyard orbit after they have used all their on-board reserves,” according to a Space Force press release.

“There’s on the order of more than 50 start-ups and various companies that are investing in these capabilities from small-scale robotic arms with little pincers to grab things to big-blow-up nets [for space debris],” Beg said. “The venture capital world is very excited about these possibilities.”

Being able to upgrade, inspect, refuel, and reorbit satellites in space makes space operations much more flexible and less expensive, wrote Air Force Capt. Joshua Garretson in a 2021 essay on satellite servicing. The need for such a capability is particularly acute because technology develops so fast that most telecom satellites are out of date by the time they reach orbit, Garretson said.

“The logistics behind it is complex and requires effort, but the rewards of increased space superiority, solar system exploration, lower costs, and [the] possibility of the largest economic market in recent history speak for themselves,” wrote Garretson.

The contract announced March 20 could move that concept closer to reality. The Small Business Innovation Research contract was awarded by SpaceWERX, an entity within Space Force that helps industry, academia, and the government develop space security technologies. SpaceNews reported that the satellite to be built in the ground demonstration will be made up of at least three modules made by NovaWurks. If all goes well, building satellites in space build could have implications beyond Earth’s orbit.

“The ability to assemble a functional satellite off of another platform is something that will open up not just Earth orbit markets and on-the-fly changes to existing satellites, but to on-demand satellites for lunar or Martian exploration,” Dr. Robert Ambrose, director of space and robotics initiatives at TEES, said in the Arkisys announcement. “This is incredibly exciting for us as we are developing platforms to validate and demonstrate higher fidelity robotics on orbit, to build, assemble, repair, and operate.”