Can companies clean up by cleaning up space?

Tyler Mitchell By Tyler Mitchell Jun8,2024

The satellite industry would seem to have nearly a billion reasons to embrace satellite servicing. Space insurers are bracing for as much as $1 billion in claims this year, the majority of which coming from two high-profile failures of new satellites, ViaSat-3 Americas and Inmarsat-6 F2. Those incidents would appear to show the benefits of being able to repair satellites in orbit rather than writing them off as total or near-total losses.

But the insurers who are on the hook for those massive claims are taking a far more cautious approach to satellite servicing. Mark Quinn, chief executive of WTW Global Inspace, a space insurance broker, told an audience at the Global Satellite Servicing Forum Oct. 12 in Arlington, Virginia, that insurers would take a wait-and-see approach to servicing, given the lack of technical maturity and experience in the industry.

“In order to unlock significant capacity on new projects of very high value — new applications with hardware that actually hasn’t flown in orbit — we need to figure out a way to get insurers comfortable that something that is flying is going to work reliably the first time so they are willing to commit their capacity at a reasonable price with the coverage that is required,” he said at the conference, organized by CONFERS, a satellite servicing industry group.

Insurers, he said, might be willing to be customers of satellite servicing capabilities or offer discounts to customers who design their satellites to be more easily serviced. “It needs to be available, it needs to be reliable and it also needs to be cost effective,” he said of satellite servicing. “It needs to cost less than the alternative.”

Much of the attention on satellite servicing has been on the technologies needed to manipulate and maneuver space objects to refuel or repair them, or to dispose of them at the end of their lives. A secondary issue has been regulatory and legal challenges, such as who would license and oversee servicing activities.

A potentially larger issue, though, is who will pay for satellite servicing and activities, and how much. There have been a few cases of customers signing up for such capabilities, such as for the satellite life extension services provided by Northrop Grumman’s SpaceLogistics subsidiary. The business case, though, is less clear for more advanced services, and is wildly uncertain for orbital debris removal.

Seeking a government demand signal

In some cases, government agencies have stepped in to support development of satellite servicing and debris removal services. Programs by the European Space Agency, Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency and United Kingdom Space Agency are funding commercial efforts to inspect and remove space objects.

In the United States, NASA and the Space Force have taken different approaches to supporting servicing or debris removal. In a keynote at the CONFERS event Oct. 11, NASA Deputy Administrator Pam Melroy emphasized the importance that technologies like in-space refueling will play for its Artemis lunar exploration campaign, as both Blue Origin and SpaceX plan to refuel their lunar landers in orbit before landing on the moon.

When it came to active debris removal, though, she pointed to “foundational” technologies being developed for other applications that could be applied to removing debris. “We see our role as supporting the tech development in all of those areas,” she said.

NASA’s biggest satellite servicing technology development effort is a mission called OSAM-1, for On-orbit Servicing, Assembly, and Manufacturing. That mission, originally called Restore-L, will rendezvous with Landsat 7 and refuel that spacecraft, as well as test the ability to assemble a large dish antenna using a robotic arm.

OSAM-1, though, has suffered extensive delays. An audit into the mission by NASA’s Office of Inspector General, published Oct. 2, concluded OSAM-1 will likely exceed its current projected cost of $2.05 billion and miss its December 2026 launch date. A major part of those problems, that audit concluded, was “poor performance” by Maxar on the spacecraft bus and robotic arm system.

“There’s lots of great work going there,” NASA’s Bo Naasz said of OSAM-1 at the conference, noting the satellite bus had been delivered to the Goddard Space Flight Center, soon to be followed by the robotic arm system.

“Obviously, there’s been a lot of difficulty,” he added, describing the challenge of developing a system to refuel a satellite not designed to be serviced in orbit. “It’s hard. It’s really hard.”

Even if OSAM-1 is a success, it’s not clear NASA would be a major user of similar capabilities to refuel or service its satellites. “We cannot be a huge customer because we do science and technology demonstrations. We do amazing things, but they’re not huge constellations that require a lot of servicing,” Melroy said.

“I wondered if refueling in low Earth orbit made sense in what is essentially a disposable environment,” she added, “but now the Space Force is thinking about how this foundational military principle of maneuverability could be enabled by refueling.”

“Buying as a service is where our heads are at. The reality is that we’re probably not going to have a lot of money at first, so we’re looking to buy as a service.” — U.S. Space Force Maj. Gen. Stephen Purdy, shown while addressing would-be in-space servicing providers at CONFERS in October 2023. Credit: SpaceNews/Brian Berger

In another keynote at the conference, Space Force Maj. Gen. Stephen Purdy, military deputy in the office of the assistant secretary of the Air Force for space acquisition and integration, said the service was interested in capabilities like refueling and debris removal, which it would acquire as commercial services.

That approach reflects the limited resources the Space Force has available now devoted to satellite servicing. “Buying as a service is where our heads are at,” he said. “The reality is that we’re probably not going to have a lot of money at first, so we’re looking to buy as a service.”

The Space Force has provided some support for developing satellite servicing capabilities. Purdy cited an award made in September to Astroscale U.S., providing that company $25.5 million to help develop a refueling satellite, an award that includes investment by Astroscale. Under that agreement, Astroscale will deliver a “manifest ready” satellite within two years for a potential on-orbit demonstration.

“There is money out there that we have been able to move. It’s not a ton,” Purdy said of the Astroscale award.

“You do have a champion in the Pentagon,” he told the industry audience. “I may not have a lot of money, but I’ve got a lot of spirit and gumption.”

$33 million or $0

The business case challenge is even harder for debris removal. With satellite servicing, customers can compare the cost of servicing a satellite with the value gained by doing so, such as the additional revenue it generates or other capabilities it provides. But what is the value of removing a defunct satellite, upper stage or other piece of debris?

One startup is trying to put a price tag on debris removal. The calling card of Michigan-based Kall Morris Inc. (KMI) has been a deck of playing cards. Each card features a space object and the company’s price for deorbiting it. On one deck, for example, the jack of diamonds has IRAS, a defunct 40-yearold NASA astrophysics satellite. KMI says it can deorbit it for $32,990,300.

During the Global Satellite Servicing Forum, KMI announced a partnership with space situational awareness company Privateer. The companies will use Privateer’s Wayfinder database and KMI’s algorithms to calculate deorbit prices for a much larger range of objects. Clicking on an eligible object in the Wayfinder display — currently limited to defunct U.S. objects — will bring up KMI’s estimated price to deorbit it.

Those prices are based on several factors, said Troy Morris, co-founder and chief executive of KMI, in an interview. They include the mass of the object, its orbit and its rate of tumbling. The price, he added, is based on a dedicated mission by the company’s servicer, slated to enter service no earlier than 2025, and the price could be reduced if the servicer could also remove other objects in similar orbits on the same mission.

KMI promotes its in-space servicing offering with a deck of playing cards featuring defunct satellites and upper stages — and the prices the company would charge to deorbit them. Credit: Photo courtesy KMI

Publishing prices, he said, is intended to start a discussion on the value of debris removal. “We’re starting to inform customers so they can make an informed decision, because we’ve been operating in the dark for who’s going to pay, what are they going to pay,” he explained, noting that he had received “some compliments and some considerations” about the pricing while at the conference.

“We need to do something to better inform industry on what’s possible,” he said. “We want to see more data out there, more prices. I’d love to, in a future state, click on an object and see, like you’re shopping online, three or four prices.”

A price alone, though, is insufficient, since there’s no guarantee that there will be demand at that price. NASA has tried to address that with a study published earlier this year by its Office of Technology, Policy and Strategy (OTPS) that performed a cost-benefit analysis of orbital debris removal.

“The way you measure a problem influences the way that you think about the problem, the way you decide what to do about the problem and when to do it,” said Tom Colvin, senior policy adviser at NASA OTPS and lead author of that study, during a panel discussion at AIAA’s ASCEND conference in Las Vegas Oct. 24.

The conventional approach, he said, was to look at the amount of debris in orbit and its growth over decades or centuries, out of concern to avoid runaway growth known as the Kessler Syndrome. The alternative approach the NASA study used examined the near-term increase in risk, measured in dollars: the cost of degraded or damaged spacecraft as well as maneuvers to avoid collisions.

“I’m not trying to say that’s the right way or the only way to do it,” he said, “but if you use that lens, you can end up with very different possible conclusions.”

That study found that removing the largest objects, long the focus of orbital debris remediation efforts because of concerns they could break apart into clouds of smaller debris, may be less effective than approaches like lasers intended to deorbit small debris less than 10 centimeters across. It also found costs borne by operators to deal with conjunctions were relatively modest.

Credit: KMI illustration

Colvin suggested that could lead to a scenario where remediation was largely unnecessary, provided there was highly accurate tracking of debris as small as one centimeter. “It would become relatively cheap for spacecraft to maneuver to avoid those pieces of debris, and then you can shield from the millimeter-sized debris,” he said. “That reduces the incentive to do remediation.”

Other panelists argued that conclusion didn’t mean remediation was totally unnecessary, and that it should be part of a solution that includes better tracking and mitigating the growth of debris. “We need to do all three. There isn’t a sustainable future if we don’t do all three,” said Carolyn Belle of Aurica Space Strategy Consulting, who previously worked for Astroscale U.S.

But she acknowledged the proportion of investment into those three categories will not be the same and shift over time. “If we invest heavily in mitigation now, over time we can move to remediation.”

It does, though, illustrate the challenges of the size and value of the market for removing orbital debris. During another ASCEND session, panelists discussed various mechanisms for paying for debris cleanup, from bonds to fines. The latter brought up the FCC’s $150,000 fine of Dish Network issued Oct. 2 for failing to move one of its geostationary satellites into a graveyard orbit as required to do at the end of its life.

The size of the fine suggests it may not be enough to motivate companies to properly deorbit their satellites. “The penalties have to be sufficiently high to invoke change,” said Trevor Bennett, co-founder of satellite servicing company Starfish Space. “Some people will do the math and compare the size of the fine with what they save” by not deorbiting.

The best answer the panel could provide in a 45-minute discussion was that it was in companies’ best interests to pay to remove debris. “We have tried to act as responsibly as possible in space, because I think it’s our duty to not clutter up space,” said John Guiney, senior vice president of network operations at Eutelsat Group, which now operates the OneWeb constellation. “I hope we get to the point where all these companies want to do these things and we don’t need the penalties. We just do it because it makes sense for us.”

This article first appeared in the November 2023 issue of SpaceNews magazine.

Tyler Mitchell

By Tyler Mitchell

Tyler is a renowned journalist with years of experience covering a wide range of topics including politics, entertainment, and technology. His insightful analysis and compelling storytelling have made him a trusted source for breaking news and expert commentary.

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2 thoughts on “Can companies clean up by cleaning up space?”
  1. As a journalist with expertise in the satellite industry, I believe that the cautious approach of insurers towards satellite servicing is understandable. The industry needs to prove its technical maturity and reliability before insurers can confidently commit to supporting such services. However, I also see the potential benefits of satellite servicing in minimizing losses due to satellite failures. Finding a balance between innovation and risk management will be crucial for the future of the satellite industry.

  2. As a space enthusiast, I believe that satellite servicing is crucial for the sustainability of the satellite industry. Companies should invest in developing reliable approaches to repair satellites in orbit to avoid massive losses like the recent incidents with ViaSat-3 Americas and Inmarsat-6 F2. Insurers need to recognize the potential benefits and support this technology for the future of space exploration.

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