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Robotic Refueling Mission illustration
Satellite servicing is one emerging space application that relies on technology development, but also needs a strong business case. (credit: NASA/GSFC)

Technology’s role in space innovation

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The space industry is often extremely focused on technology, with many believing it is the solution to all the problems facing spaceflight today. If only there was a higher performance rocket engine, a higher efficiency solar cell, a more robust life support system, and so on, they argue, we have a bright future in store for us in space.

It’s true that technology development is an essential aspect of spaceflight, including new commercial applications in space. However, technology alone is usually not sufficient to enable those new markets or new missions. A technology that is unaffordable, or doesn’t help close a business case, does little to advance a market or a mission. As several panelists at the recent NewSpace 2013 conference, held last month by the Space Frontier Foundation in San Jose, California, discussed, those technological advances must be viewed with an eye towards practical applications, and that sometimes the key is not a new technology, but an innovative way of making use of existing technologies.

A new, yet familiar, name in satellite servicing

One emerging market closely tied to advances in space technology is satellite servicing. The ability to extend the life of existing satellites running low on stationkeeping propellant, or repair satellites that have suffered malfunctions, requires technologies that can perform such servicing with a level of maturity that can assure the owners of those satellites—who are often relatively risk-averse—that such work can be carried out without further damaging or disabling their spacecraft.

“The business case has to close,” Armor said of satellite servicing. “Industry will use new technology, but it’s probably not going to be the exotic, expensive stuff.”

Many of those technical challenges are being addressed by NASA’s Robotic Refueling Mission (RRM), a series of technology demonstrations being performed on the International Space Station. A Japanese HTV cargo spacecraft launched earlier this month brought to the station a new set of experiments for the RRM to carry out, demonstrating the ability of a robotic servicer to refuel and repair a satellite that was not designed for on-orbit servicing. “We realize that there are still hurdles to be overcome,” said Ben Reed, deputy project manager of NASA’s Satellite Servicing Capabilities Office, during a panel session at NewSpace 2013. “Our job is to continue to chip away at them to make this viable for a commercial partner.”

Those hurdles, he acknowledged, are not just technical: satellite servicing brings with it other challenges as well, from the policy implications of being able to service satellites to whether there’s a business case for satellite servicing. The business case in particular has yet to be demonstrated: while Intelsat and Canadian company MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates (MDA) signed an agreement in 2011 where Intelsat would be a customer of an MDA-developed satellite servicer, the companies dissolved the agreement a year later when they couldn’t find additional customers for the proposed system.

That difficulty may be linked to the lack of demonstration of those technologies. “For commercial business, I’m not after ‘wicked cool’ technology. For commercial business, you need sweet, simple, low-risk, easy to control, reliable technology to do wicked cool missions,” said Jim Armor, vice president of strategy and business development at ATK, which is a partner in satellite servicing company Vivisat. That venture has focused on the less technically challenging business of providing stationkeeping and propulsion for satellites, rather than full-fledged repair services, but with a long-term vision of providing infrastructure and logistics to support commercial space ventures beyond Earth orbit as well.

“The business case has to close,” he continued. “Industry will use new technology, but it’s probably not going to be the exotic, expensive stuff.”

The technology and business challenges facing satellite servicing today, though, is not deterring new entrants into the market. At NewSpace 2013, Dennis Wingo announced that his company, Skycorp, was getting into the market with the Skycorp Spacecraft Life Extension System (SLES). Or, rather, getting back into the satellite servicing market: Wingo had worked on satellite servicing concepts with Orbital Recovery Corporation more than a decade ago. Those efforts foundered after the company’s CEO, Walt Anderson, was arrested and later convicted on tax fraud charges.

Skycorp, Wingo said, is taking some of the technologies developed by Orbital Recovery and refining them, lowering development costs by 40 percent while increasing the efficiency of the servicing spacecraft. “We still have our relationships with the German space agency,” Wingo said, referring to past support by DLR of satellite servicing technology development. “We still have very good relationships with the insurance community, who is very interested in this system.”

Wingo said Skycorp has a signed letter of intent with an unnamed satellite operator interested in using the SLES. “We have a lot of traction out there,” he said. “A lot of folks like us.”

3-D printing in space and on Earth

One technology that has attracted a lot of interest, on Earth and in space, is 3-D printing, sometimes also called additive manufacturing. As many companies look to find terrestrial applications of 3-D printing, a few are examining how it can be used in space.

“This idea of living off the land,” Kelso said, “is paramount not only in terms of moving humanity to another planetary surface, but it is also paramount in the strategy in the state of Hawaii.”

Silicon Valley startup Made In Space is one such firm, actively developing a 3-D printer that can operate in microgravity (see “The Silicon Valley of space could be Silicon Valley”, The Space Review, July 29, 2013). The company is working on a prototype printer slated to be flown to the ISS next year; that printer, the company said last week, recently passed a milestone for NASA flight certification, after completing microgravity tests on parabolic aircraft flights earlier this summer.

That and a follow-on printer will be able, Dunn estimates, to produce 30 percent of the spare parts needed on the ISS, easing some of the logistics challenges of supporting the station. The printer feedstock—“gray goo,” as founder Jason Dunn called it during a NewSpace 2013 session—will still need be shipped up to the station, but the company is thinking about how to get around that constraint as well. “In the long term, we have start using resources that we find in space,” he said.

Another organization is looking into just that: 3-D printing using in situ planetary resources. Hawaii-based Pacific International Space Center for Exploration Systems (PISCES) is looking into the potential of 3-D printing using basaltic “fines”, the remnants of mining. “It’s trash for them,” PISCES executive director Rob Kelso said, referring to miners, “but it’s raw feedstock for us.”

PISCES’s interest in this technology is in part because of its applicability to future space exploration: the ability to print tools or other items from lunar or Martian regolith, for example. But that and related technologies, such as developing a “lunar concrete” from those same basaltic fines, also have terrestrial applications that have helped win support from the state government. Kelso said such technologies could make Hawaii less reliant on imports of everything from energy to Portland cement. “This idea of living off the land,” he said, “is paramount not only in terms of moving humanity to another planetary surface, but it is also paramount in the strategy in the state of Hawaii.”

When adding a booster saves money

Sometimes, a key innovation comes not from a new technology, but from an application of an existing technology in ways that offer cost or performance benefits in unforeseen ways. That’s the approach one person offers regarding space launch: an increase in the cost and performance of a launch vehicle could offer much greater benefits for its payload.

The issue with most satellites, said Gary Oleson, a senior engineer with TASC, is that they are often mass constrained as their designers try to get them on the smallest rocket possible. That made sense given the launch economics of the time, but the current situation is different, he argued, thanks to both the development of SpaceX’s Falcon launch vehicles but also the EELV-class Atlas V and Delta IV rockets, whose performance can be enhanced by adding solid rocket boosters.

“It expands the engineering trade space. Engineers will have many more choices,” Oleson said. That could include putting more fuel on a spacecraft, adding more power, or other design changes that could save money on spacecraft development.

In the case of the EELVs, a single additional booster costs about $10 million dollars (in the case of the Delta IV, those boosters must be added in pairs.) The additional performance those boosters provide, though, can make a huge difference in satellite design: a spacecraft with a 10% mass margin on an Atlas V 501 would, with the addition of a single booster, now have an almost 50% mass margin. “That’s enough essentially to buy your way out of many, if not all, of your mass limit problems,” he said.

The willingness to buy extra performance for a relatively nominal cost—or, potentially, get it for even less money if the Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy meet their price and performance targets—could reshape satellite design, Oleson said. “It expands the engineering trade space. Engineers will have many more choices,” he said. That could include putting more fuel on a spacecraft, adding more power, or other design changes that could save money on spacecraft development.

“All of the aerospace engineers alive today spent their entire careers being trained and having continuous experience of always, always optimizing on mass,” he said. This approach would shake up that paradigm, but would not eliminate the need for strong systems engineering. “What we’re talking about here is good systems engineering applied to an expanded trade space. There will be temptations that will need to be overcome.”