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.DONATE
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