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U.S. Space Force’s New ‘Orbital Prime’ Program Focused on Building In-Orbit Services

U.S. Space Force’s New ‘Orbital Prime’ Program Focused on Building In-Orbit Services

Public-private partnership to develop market and technologies to repair and refuel existing satellites, remove orbital debris.

Between crashing Chinese rockets, failed Russian orbiters, and vast expansion in the use of geosynchronous orbit, the U.S. Space Force has identified a potential new market for a wide variety of services to be provided in orbit.

The newest military branch is planning to partner with private businesses to develop that market.

The program known as “Orbital Prime” will focus on the emerging market sector known as OSAM, short for on-orbit servicing, assembly and manufacturing. This includes a broad range of technologies to repair and refuel existing satellites, remove orbital debris and create new capabilities in space.

Orbital Prime is run by SpaceWERX, the space-focused arm of the Air Force technology incubator AFWERX. In 2020 AFWERX sponsored Agility Prime, a project to advance the market for electric-powered pilotless aircraft that take off and land vertically. Orbital Prime will be a similar effort to spur government and private investment in OSAM technologies.

The plan is to award multiple Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) and Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) contracts. To compete for Orbital Prime awards, businesses have to partner with academic and nonprofit institutions.

The proposals for the first phase of Orbital Prime projects are due Feb. 17.

Teams can win Phase 1 awards of $250,000 and Phase 2 awards of $1.5 million. If any are selected for an in-space demonstration, the government will fund a share of the cost.

Thompson said the Space Force wants to see these technologies succeed so it can buy debris-removal services from the private sector.

“Our vision in this partnership is to aggressively explore those capabilities today, in the hope that we and others can purchase them as a service in the future,” [Vice Chief of Space Operations Gen. David Thompson] said.

More information on the program can be found on the SpaceWERX site.

This may be a very timely move. Apparently, the U.S. is behind other countries in methods to remove “space junk”.

Darren McKnight, senior technical fellow at LeoLabs and member of the International Academy of Astronautics’ Space Debris Committee, said initiatives by the U.S. Space Force to fund debris cleanup technologies are laudable but not nearly enough to address what is becoming a serious threat to the space business.

LeoLabs is a private company based in California that uses ground-based radars to monitor low Earth orbit.

…Unlike other countries, the United States is tackling the debris issue as a long-term problem that is decades away, he said. In reality, the risk of satellites colliding with debris objects — and debris-on-debris collisions that create even more space junk — is increasing rapidly and could soon begin to impact the industry’s ability to operate satellites reliably.

“It’s embarrassing to me hearing people talk about the need for active debris removal and the need for debris mediation as if it’s something that’s going to be decades out,” said McKnight. “The European Space Agency and Japan’s space agency are way ahead on those sorts of things.”

As long as the program doesn’t get throttled by diversity, inclusion, and equity mandates or “climate science”, Orbital Prime’s launch has a real chance to hit its target.


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2smartforlibs | January 9, 2022 at 12:10 pm

Did the left say this was silly and unnecessary? Guess it’s hard seeing past the knee jerk and hate.

Pasadena Peabody | January 9, 2022 at 12:19 pm

Building in orbit!

Hey, this is good news for Joe Biden. His mind has left the launch pad and is currently in orbit and he no longer has control. Maybe the Space Force can locate it and help his handlers build back better.

“….and vast expansion in the use of geosynchronous orbit”

I think you may have been referring to “near-earth orbit” here. Geosynchronous orbits are 22,000+ miles high, and at that distance there is relatively little likelihood of collisions.

Near-earth orbits, on the other hand, can be as low as 100 miles high. At this distance more satellites are required due to their relatively narrow sight-window of the earth’s surface. This is where collisions are much more likely, and growing more likely every day as this ‘band’ of space becomes more crowded.

    Geosynchronous orbit is (to over-use a phrase) hot real estate. Think about it for a sec. If you allocate every sat 1-degree of separation, you can only have 360 total sats in that orbit. A lot of companies have a slot that they replace the sat in every 10-15 years (think of it as a great big iPhone upgrade) and move the old sat into a slightly higher ‘parking’ orbit. That’s a lot of multi-ton hunks of dead (or snoozing) metal. A tug that can poke-poke its way up to that orbit, hook onto a dead sat, and poke-poke it back down into low orbit where it can burn up would be a great trash collector. Even if you’re only tugging 1 sat a month, that can at least slow down the accumulation, more if the tug is used to put up new sats at the same time it is taking down old ones.

      I was thinking about it in terms of the overall space at 22,000 miles versus 100 miles. I degree of separation at 22,000 miles is many orders of magnitude higher than 1 degree of spread at 100 miles. Another way to think about it is the surface area of a golf ball versus the surface area of a basketball.

      Then there is the sheer number of satellites… my googling around suggests there are roughly 402 satellites in geosync orbit today, versus the tens of thousands that Musk and Bezos are putting up for internet access alone.

As the rest of the world militarizes, we continue the Clinton/Bush/Obama goal of turning America into the Austro-Hungarian Empire immediately preceding WWI.

My daughters next door neighbors son is in the Space Program, graduated from Air Force Academy
Said he has to keep ALL his conservative opinions to himself from EVERYONE.
But he’s thrilled with the program and what’s happening in Space right now, all the private/ NASA partnerships
In that I am glad for him

In-N-Out Burger. “In orbit” take-out service. You KNOW it’s gonna happen eventually.