Servicing covers a wide range of activities spanning fixing, improving, and reviving satellites and refers to any work to refuel, repair, replace or augment an existing asset in space. Servicing allows for satellite life-extension and upgradability as technology evolves on Earth.
The most mature and robust of the OSAM capabilities, servicing is the conduit through which NASA will end the era of one-and-done spacecraft, which dictates satellites are designed to live their lives alone.
Assembly is the practice of gathering two or more parts together in space into a single, functional aggregate structure. A suite of assembly capabilities allows us to launch individual parts to space separately and bring them together, thereby overcoming the constraints of rocket fairing volume limitations.
The ability to launch individual components of a large structure and robotically assemble them in space makes various seemingly impossible concepts possible. This capability allows for assembly of habitats in places further away than low-Earth orbit, and opens up the door for constructing large telescopes and other platforms that would otherwise be impossible.
Manufacturing is the fabrication of components in space as the need arises. This capability allows for greater adaptability in dealing with unforeseen challenges and has the potential to eliminate the need to launch as many components (including contingency components) upfront. It also allows for the production of unprecedented monolithic structures, such as jointless thirty-meter truss beams. On-orbit coating applications and nano-manufacturing allows for surface coatings to be applied or renewed to recover optical and thermal properties.
Being able to launch the components of a large, deep-space telescope separately and assemble them in space can break the current constraint of telescopes needing to be small enough to fit on a single launch vehicle. Technologies demonstrated by OSAM are laying the groundwork for in-space assembled observatories to peer deeper into our universe and possibly find life beyond Earth.
Starshades are large, deployable structures that can help in the search for life on planets outside our Solar System. Earth-like planets orbiting a star are about 10 billion times fainter than their star, making them difficult to see. Starshades flown between a space telescope and a star could block out a star's light to reveal any planets for direct imaging. Large quantities of fuel are required for continuous thrust to maintain the starshade's proper position, so the ability to refuel is a critical aspect of concept feasibility.
On-orbit Assembly, and Manufacturing can be used to contruct truss structures in space, thereby enabling persistent orbital platforms which can be repeatedly reconfigured and renewed. Persistent platforms can efficiently host short-term technology demonstration payloads launched without dedicated spacecraft. The payloads rely on the platform for all engineering resources, including removal and disposal at the end of the demonstration, freeing up the position for the next payload.
Persistent platforms can also provide long-term hosting of complementary instrument suites that provide synergistic science from overlapping fields of view. Furthermore, unmanned persistent platforms can provide considerably better pointing knowledge and stability than the international space station (ISS), without manned safety requirements and obstructions. A robotically equipped persistent platform creates a flexible environment for adapting and reconfiguring payloads, and continuously expanding On-orbit resources.
The basic formula for sustainable space exploration is: consumable replenishment and component repair (servicing), construction of large and precise structures (assembly), and creation of components from feedstock or in-situ resources (manufacturing) to break the dependence on earth supply chain logistics.
OSAM capabilities are critical to developing sustainable space architectures that allow spacecraft to live longer and journey farther, as well enabling a sustained human presence in space. Robotic OSAM technologies facilitate the replenishment of supplies that run out from spacecraft fuel, to coolant, to oxygen. They can help in ensuring the longevity and operability of spacecraft and life support systems with unplanned repair and planned maintenance.
On October 27th and 28th, NASA hosted its 6th OSAM Technology Transfer Workshop at Marshall Space Flight Center (MSFC). This year’s workshop was titled “Technologies, Partnerships, and Opportunities Enabling Space Infrastructure” and offered both in person and remote participation options. Workshop attendees received information on current OSAM activities, future opportunities, and available technologies.
On the first day of the workshop, NASA technology innovators presented on current developments in satellite servicing, on-orbit and surface assembly, and on-orbit manufacturing, including information about the upcoming OSAM-1 and OSAM-2 missions. The second day of the workshop focused on industry and academia. Companies including Northrop Grumman, Maxar Technologies, Tethers Unlimited, and Redwire, as well as academic institutions including University of Alabama, Virginia Tech, and Johns Hopkins University presented information about their innovative OSAM technologies. The workshop featured panelists from NASA, the United States Space Force, other government agencies, industry and academia, and over 300 people attended.
Goddard Space Flight Center will host the next OSAM Technology Transfer Workshop in 2022—details for the event will be posted here as they are developed.