Space Logistics: A New Frontier for Asian Satellite Operators
Hussain Bokhari, Senior Analyst, NSR
The satellite business is entering a new era marked not just by enhanced technology and increased launches, but also by a revolutionary approach to orbital operations—space logistics. Over the next 10 years, over 32,000 satellites are expected to be ordered and launched. This is the dawn of a transformational age marked by the innovative integration of space logistics into orbital operations.
This growing business includes last-mile logistics, in-orbit servicing, active debris removal, in-orbit manufacturing, and space situational awareness. These elements combine to present an enticing opportunity for satellite operators all over the globe, and in particular in Asia where many solutions originated, to improve their value proposition, streamline operations, and redefine the competitive landscape. As satellite operators evaluate their specific market strategies, the in-orbit services such as last-mile delivery, in-orbit servicing, active debris removal, in-orbit manufacturing, and space situational awareness have started to become a key component of the future of the satellite industry.
A Huge Potential Market
NSR’s In-Orbit Services: Satellite Servicing, ADR, and SSA 6th Edition (IOSM6) report forecasts over 23,000 satellites could be serviced through a variety of unique space logistics service offerings, however the market demand will reach only 3,800+ satellites between 2022-2032 period. Primarily due to technological challenges that are seeing delays in demonstration that are to showcase advances in robotics, automation, standardized interfaces, and protocols for interoperability. To successfully deploy these technologies, the economic benefits to the operators need to outweigh the costs of sustaining operations. The main factors influencing the growing need for In-Orbit Services are coming from LEO commercial constellations plans, growing data capacity demand for downstream applications such as IoT and Earth Observation, equally contributing to building a sustainable and safe space environment to unlock the potential of a circular space economy. As well, regulatory requirements from the FCC & ITU require operators to launch 50% of their constellation in in a set timeline (usually 6 years) and deploy 100% of the system within 9 years.
Global IOSM Demand by Service
Globally, there is a push to create a circular space economy by 2050, one example is NASA that formed an ISAM (In-Space Servicing, Assembly, and Manufacturing) partnership to bring industry together, and ESA which has focused on ISAM capabilities featuring recycling, re-purposing, & re-using materials in space and both have immense potential, as they promise to revolutionize the economics of space exploration and usage.
Ultimately, reducing the need for costly and sophisticated ground-based manufacturing procedures has the potential to minimize the costs of spacecraft development, launch, and maintenance. To move forward towards this goal, Last Mile Delivery (LMD) service providers are stepping up to fulfill the increasing deployment demand and increase launch access. Beyond the typical services of integration, last-mile distribution, and constellation/mission planning, LMD providers can serve to alleviate the pressure on launch service providers. It could potentially lead to development of advanced infrastructure for space stations, lunar stations, and deep space exploration vehicles.
Cumulative Global IOSM
Revenues by Service
Logistics Rising to the Top
Satellites have always been thought to be irreparable after launch. However, the advent of in-orbit servicing has the potential to change this perception, prolonging satellite life and increasing utility. Satellite operators can use this technology to execute upgrades, repairs, or refuelling operations, significantly extending the lifespan, and functioning of their satellites.
NSR’s IOSM6 forecasts the market to generate $14.3B cumulatively by 2032, with Life Extension (LE) driving 44% of total market revenues. Growing opportunities continue to rise in the Asia region as 20% of the overall revenues accumulating $1.03B or 17% of the Life Extension revenues represent a key part of the overall growth. The recent Mission Extension Pod orders with Northrop Grumman from GEO operators Intelsat and Asia’s Optus demonstrate growing market confidence in Life Extension (LE) services. At the heart of achieving these revenues lie robotic servicers and refuelling depots that are redefining how operators can use the different available technologies to their advantage and continue to maintain competitive profit margins while addressing sustainability as a key driving indicator. With this capacity, life extension can be a cost-effective solution to satellite maintenance for Asian satellite operators, minimizing the need for frequent and costly replacements. Operators may future-proof their assets, preserve their investments, and assure long-term growth by forming alliances with in-orbit servicing providers.
NSR estimates that over 4,500 satellites could potentially be serviced via Last Mile Delivery service providers. However, the actual market demand reaches only 1,350 satellites, generating over $1.8 billion in cumulative revenues and with the Asia region set to generate 11% of the overall revenues from a market growing at a 37% CAGR. The lower market demand is primarily due to trade-offs between extremely reliable launchers and ridesharing launch cadence, which affects launch and deployment costs.
With the advent of satellite constellations, efficient systems for last-mile logistics are mor and more in demand to ensure that each satellite is effectively positioned in its appropriate orbit. Increased placement accuracy can yield major operational and economic benefits such as improved coverage and communication links, as well as reduced collision risk. Adopting smart propulsion systems and autonomous docking technology can enable satellite operators to achieve remarkable last-mile logistical precision. These technologies can streamline the deployment process, minimize latency, and provide end customers with a more reliable service. Collaboration with businesses that specialize in autonomous satellite technology can help to accelerate this process, giving satellite operators a critical competitive advantage.
Safeguarding Orbital Environment
Space debris today is posing an increasing threat to orbital operations. Active debris removal is thus seen as an important aspect of space logistics, ensuring safe and sustainable operations by reducing the chance of collisions.
NSR’s IOSM6 evaluated business from Active Debris Removal (ADR) to generate revenues of roughly 8% of overall IoS revenues, equaling $1.2B over the next decade. This is primarily driven by governments and agencies aiming to address sustainability as a key issue in the face of growing congestion in space with increases in constellations launches. Governments are therefore taking a strong interested in strategically prioritizing and positioning themselves as key stakeholders by establishing public-private partnerships in the global IoS ecosystem. This offers operators with predictable, long-term revenue while allowing governments to benefit from private sector innovation without making large upfront commitments. Overall, driven by sustainability ambitions, ADR can significantly reduce operational hazards for satellite operators. Operators can handle the issue proactively by collaborating with private companies specializing in debris tracking and removal, assuring the longevity of their satellites and preserving a safe and sustainable space environment.
Cumulative Global SSA
Revenues by Orbit
Promoting Space Situational Awareness (SSA)
Space Situational Awareness (SSA) refers to the ability to observe, analyse, and predict the spatial location of both natural and man-made objects in orbit. As orbits becomes increasingly crowded, comprehensive SSA is critical for averting collisions and ensuring safe operations. Alternatively, establishing a defense awareness capability in GEO and Non-GEO orbital regimes presents an opportunity to keep government and military assets safe from unfriendly satellites which makes satellite operators in GEO especially a little uneasy.
NSR’s has forecast in its IOSM6 report the growing opportunities in the SSA market to address over 2,000+ satellites, adding market revenues of $3.5B from GEO and Non-GEO orbits customers between 2022-2032. Investments in SSA can bolster the accuracy of tracking systems employed by Asian satellite operators, empowering them to make more informed decisions regarding satellite movement, launch timings, and debris avoidance. Collaborations with SSA providers can potentially assist these operators in maintaining and enhancing the safety and reliability of their services.
Where does Asia stand?
In Asia, key institutional stakeholders, particularly JAXA in Japan, ISRO in India, and CNSA in China, have been instrumental in promoting the growth of In-Orbit Servicing (IOS) capabilities. Complementing this, a host of industrial entities across Asia, including the likes of Astroscale in Japan, Neptec in China, Space Machines, HEO Robotics in Australia, and Bellatrix Aerospace in India, are actively pursuing IOS solutions. Despite U.S. and European firms such as Space Logistics, Atomos Space, Starfish Space, Thales Alenia Space, Airbus, D-Orbit, Avio, and Surrey Space Centre taking proactive steps toward the advent of IOS, the industrial capability development in this sector was not perceived as an immediate priority by public entities until recently.
NSR’s IOSM6 report forecasts the opportunity related to In-Orbit Services within Asian through service operators addressing a set of capabilities such as Active Debris Removal, Space Situational Awareness, and Last Mile Delivery with demand growing to over 600 satellites generating $2.8B in revenues. The growth leverages regional existing capabilities and emerging strategic global cooperations creating a bridge between East and West through sharing technological and economic common interests.
Global IOSM Market – Asia
And a notable shift is visible in the IOS sector: during the establishing of the APSCO Development 2030 vision, the Agencies led by China made a resolute commitment to kick-start a new market for in-orbit servicing and execute initiatives to promote technologies and began with conducting feasibility studies.
At the same time, agencies like JAXA, KARI, NZ’s Space Agency and Australian Space Agency are embracing a service-centric approach to not only catalyse the development of broad-based IOS solutions but also to validate the feasibility of commercial IOS missions. The first contract for space debris removal service was awarded to Astroscale by JAXA. Indeed, the upcoming ADRAS-J mission aims to rendezvous and inspect the upper stage of Japanese upper stage rocket body. It will lift off from Mahia, New Zealand on board the kick-stage of Rocket Lab’s Electron vehicle, sending the mission to orbit through its last-mile delivery capability.
Although planned missions and order books for launch companies are tightly occupied, the IOS sector faces significant challenges such as high costs, mission design complexities (e.g., rendezvous, service removal of multiple objects per mission), and legal implications related to object selection for removal. For IOS to become an appealing service with a robust business case, several challenges must be overcome:
- Recognition of the economic value of maintaining a clean space environment is perhaps the first significant hurdle to clear.
- On top of this, there needs to have a convincing and sustainable business model, grounded in a comprehensive long-term assessment of commercial demand and pioneering technological solutions.
- Finally, the economic efficacy of these services is highly depended on collaborative operations with other forms of In-Orbit Services. Thus, the Asian approach should remain flexible enough to accommodate diverse applications.
Although an emerging market can represent a growing potential to address the needs to satellite operators of tomorrow, IOS introduces several challenges including:
- Issues concerning the safety and sustainability of RPOs, and the employment of IOS solutions such as debris cleaning to support space sustainability goals;
- Legal and regulatory challenges with responsibility and insurance, as well as ownership of orbiting objects and intellectual property concerns;
- Issues of technology and standardization for the development of multifunctional, flexible, and interoperable solutions capable of supporting new missions, particularly in the sphere of space exploration;
- Aspects of security and defense, particularly in relation to the usage of IOS solutions for military purposes such as system destruction/disruption and espionage;
The Bottom Line
In essence, these key services – last-mile logistics, in-orbit servicing, active debris removal, and space situational awareness – represent promising near-term opportunities for satellite operators. While each of these services presents unique benefits, their combined implementation could result in exponential advantages, propelling these operators to the forefront of the space logistics revolution.
Although, the market continues to emerge with planned missions turning into launched missions, there continues to be challenges in areas such as safety, sustainability, legal and regulatory issues, technology standardization, and security concerns for military applications. These challenges encompass aspects of space sustainability, responsibility and insurance, technology development, and defense considerations for a blooming space logistics market.
Mr. Syed Hussain Haider Bokhari started his consulting work with NSR in 2020. Mr. Bokhari is an active member of Canadian Space Society and Space Generation Advisory Council – Small Satellites & Space Exploration Project Groups helping to solve new challenges and create solutions for the next generation satellites and space exploration. Mr. Bokhari’s worked with Satellite Canada Innovation Network, as a Business Development Manager, conducting market assessments, strategic analyses, and commercial due diligence and Ryerson University as a project development officer, in student engagement, and as a systems engineer at their Ryerson University Space Systems.
Space Logistics: Reducing Rigidities in the Space Satellite Value Chain
Gabriel Deville, Space Industry Consultant, Euroconsult
Early life of space logistics and the promise of redefining the economics of space
In recent years, an emerging set of in-orbit and ground services aimed at increasing flexibility, security, and sustainability for satellite operators – now commonly referred to as space logistics, have attracted increasing customer attention while undergoing high-profile demonstrations (and in some cases, early commercialization). Building on concepts proposed as far back as the 1960s, space logistics usually rely on a physical interaction between spacecraft once in orbit in order for one to deliver a service to the other – such as satellite life extension (both by means of satellite “back-packing” or refueling), satellite repairs and augmentation, active debris removal, on-orbit assembly and manufacturing or orbital transportation by means of and orbital transfer vehicle (OTV).
Euroconsult’s scope for space logistics also encompasses access to space, both as a part and a key enabler of other space logistics activities, along with Space Situational Awareness (SSA), as the monitoring of the space environment will become increasingly crucial to support satellite activities including logistics activities, in a highly populated and congested orbital environment. SSA stands out from other space logistics activities, as the only one of them not relying on a physical interaction between spacecraft, but rather on observation and cataloging of objects in orbit.
Euroconsult’s space logistics markets forecast
Excluding launch (which alone are expected to generate $100 billion over 2023 to 2032), Space Situational Awareness is expected to be the 1st space logistics market in revenue over the decade by Euroconsult, standing at $1.8 billion out of the $4 billion expected in total from 2023 to 2032. Satellite life-extension stands out as second market with $900 million over the same period, followed by active debris removal, last mile delivery and in-orbit manufacturing.
Although most space logistics activities are still at concept or demonstration phase, in the long term, they could profoundly redefine the economics of space. For instance, they could eventually lead to low-cost in-orbit transportation thanks to the reusability of hardware, satellite maintenance and augmentation, commoditized spacecraft refueling on a gas-station model. Large-scale manufacturing in space could reduce the reliance on the satellite and launch value chain itself, by producing capabilities directly in orbit, enabling extensive reactivity and flexibility for satellite operators. SSA could give way into space traffic management, with coordinated rules of spaceflight and centralized regulation, traffic management, and claims authorities.
Indeed, in the long term, space logistics refer not only to a collection of capabilities and services, but also to the idea of a coordinated and organized ecosystem of suppliers and users in space, abiding regulations and rules, capable of exchanging information between one another and of forming new spontaneous interactions and partnerships as opportunities arise.
For now, most of them are still in a market building phase, driven by over 50 commercial suppliers worldwide (excluding launch providers), and feature a very diverse set of actors. Some incumbent space companies are leveraging flight heritage and repurposing technology for new services as they perceive stresses in the value chain and opportunity in relieving them. Some have been newly formed specifically to address yet inexistent markets, sometimes raising capital on the private market, and face the challenge of building up heritage rapidly in order to gain the trust of anchor customers.
Synergies and potential for Human spaceflight and deep space exploration
Historically, the key orbital capabilities enabling space logistics – such as in-orbit rendezvous and proximity maneuvers, autonomous navigation, docking, fluid and energy connections and transfers, were developed as part of Human spaceflight programs. Early rendezvous and docking operations during the space race, then space station assembly and resupplying in crews and cargo, have been the historical drivers of these technologies and capabilities’ development. Likewise, the first satellite repair (or “servicing”) mission was performed by an astronaut crew, in 1984, on NASA’s Solar Maximum satellite (Hubble Telescope’s more famous repair mission occurred 9 years later in 1993).
However, present and emerging space logistics suppliers and their solutions are instead focused on non-crewed, autonomous spaceflight. Indeed, due to the high cost of crewed missions (the Hubble repair mission cost up to $1.4B in 2023 value), the robotic nature of space logistics activities is an inherent condition to containing costs and enabling the targeting of large-volume, conventional satellite markets (including satcom, earth observation or navigation satellites). Hence, in the modern sense, space logistics imply almost fully autonomous, robotic missions.
But beyond a collection of capabilities, space logistics also refer to the idea of a coordinated ecosystem of services and users aimed at increasing their flexibility, resilience, sustainability, and safety, in support if their primary activity – earth observation, satcom, navigation, etc. Like earth logistics, space logistics they imply the planning, implementing, and controlling of the efficient flow and storage of goods, services, and information from production to utilization and rely on means of transportation and coordination between actors.
As such, looking forward space logistics may share extensive synergies and strongly benefit space exploration missions to the Moon and beyond, both robotic and crewed, starting in the early 2030s and growing in the 2040s. Indeed, long-term presence beyond earth orbits will require the ability to sustain logistical chains to earth at a lower transportation cost and ability to manufacture goods autonomously (including from local resources with ISRU), with an extensive level of automation. These are fields which are being directly developed by present and upcoming space logistics demonstrations and proposed commercial solutions.
Anticipated revenues over 2023-2032 for 5 space logistics market vertical
Until then, space logistics to ease-off inefficiencies in the space and satellite value chain
In the long term, space logistics may eventually materialize into a web of frequent, autonomous in-orbit service interactions between spacecraft, and potentially redefine the economics of space. But until then, early solutions will rather insert themselves in the existing space and satellite value chain, as a means of reducing inefficiencies and improving business economics for satellite operators.
Indeed, there is extensive space for supply chain optimization in the space industry, which suffers from many rigidities due to its long development cycles, high technology and capex requirements, aversion to risk, and regional market compartmentalization, which frequently cause inefficiencies and mismatches between supply and demand. Satellite production and launch activities in particular are highly unagile meaning that supply does not adapt rapidly to demand evolution (although constellation models enable a more agility to short life cycles and design iteration, sometimes improving cost-efficiency and operational efficiency).
In this context, space logistics services aim at relieving pressure points in the value chain and reduce inefficiencies causing supply and demand mismatches (between operator and launch provider, or satellite maker and service provider, down to the end user, etc.). For instance, launch brokers have emerged to aggregate the rapidly growing small satellites with launchers that were designed for heavier satellites, therefore helping optimize launcher fill rates. Last Mile Delivery aims at increasing available destinations for cost-constrained smallsat operators launching on rideshare missions to a parking orbit, at a lower price than that of dedicated launchers. Life-extension provides an additional fleet management option to operators faced with rapidly evolving demand (moving away from broadcast to on demand connectivity) and hesitating to commit to a satellite for a mission duration of about 15 years. Space Situational Awareness services enable the optimization of satellite maneuvers and increased safety in the congested orbit environment.
Euroconsult’s space logistics markets report, 2nd Edition
After in-orbit demonstrations, the long road to economic viability
For now, space logistics activities stand at very different maturity levels with most of them at demonstration level or in early market introduction phase (except for launch and SSA, which are already mature activities). In order to gain a strong foothold in the space market environment, they must not only undergo technological advances (with active debris removal, in-space manufacturing and satellite repairs and augmentations the least mature activities), but also prove themselves as economically compelling solutions for satellite operators.
Indeed, space logistics always compete more-or-less directly with conventional, more mature alternatives, which apply strong competitive pressure, exacerbated by the natural inertia of satellite operators to modify their technology and their design to fit unproven services. Procuring in-orbit services is always a trade-off: satellite life-extension for instance, is cheaper than buying a new satellite but it does not bring new, higher and more cost-efficient capabilities (although it does bring more flexibility in GEO fleet-management). Small satellite mile delivery by means of an OTV competes against satellite own propulsion and dedicated launch. Active debris removal competes with lower orbital shells and built-in means of satellite end of life disposal.
Despite early commercial adoptions for over half of space logistics markets, and more upcoming high-profile demonstrations, most space logistics markets remain supply-driven markets with little known customers (except for launch, last mile delivery, and SSA). In general, there is still a long way to go before the user base sees diversified and recurring, commercial and government operators (especially operators giving up of conventional alternatives).
Considering the numerous technological advances and economics validations still required for space logistics to become large volume markets, government actors will likely need to play a key role in their making. Government contributions to space logistics will likely be threefold: first the seeding and transfer of technology, second the provision of early anchor demand to fund the development and demonstration of capabilities and services to attract further customers, and third the production of a regulatory framework and support to governance and standardization efforts.
Gabriel Deville is a space industry consultant at Euroconsult in Montreal, Canada. He specializes in satellite upstream activities, launcher economics, space logistics and space sector financing. Gabriel is the Editor in Chief for Euroconsult’s Space Logistics Markets and Space Market Monitoring reports.
There Is No Trillion-Dollar Space Economy Without On-Orbit Services
Navin Gopal, Vice President of Strategy & Business Analysis, Astroscale Holdings
I often get asked the question if on-orbit services (OOS) providers are trying to sell services that nobody needs or wants. This is a fair question for a market that has yet to establish a commercial foothold. Since 2018, NSR has been talking to stakeholders across the space industry while taking stock of the flow of OOS contracts and development programs. These signals from the market, which they capture through their annual IOSM analyses show an increasing bullishness over time (see table below with a summary of annual IOSM reports).
Source: NSR IOSM Annual Reports, Via Multiple Online News Outlets.
Despite this bullishness, the actual solution rollouts we have seen in this segment since 2018 are limited to what now seems like non-commercially replicable demonstrations of GEO satellite life extension (LEX) by Space Logistics, capability demonstrations of end of life (EOL) removal of prepared satellites via missions such as the ELSA-D demonstration by Astroscale and a few upcoming missions to inspect and categorize (ISSA) and then to remove active debris (ADR) by multiple programs, including one via a collaboration between JAXA and Astroscale to inspect a large rocket body in orbit, before a de-orbiting mission. There have been multiple other developments in areas such as refueling, but aside from the positive commercial traction of space situational awareness (SSA) services from earth, we are yet to see significant commercial adoption of OOS services. Is the bullishness in the OOS market over the last 6 years misplaced?
Before we scratch at this idea of misplaced bullishness, let us go back to the initial question and move forward by first unpacking whether on-orbit services are something operators need or should want.
Why we need On-Orbit Services
- The looming disaster of space debris needs immediate mitigation. There are close to 40,000 objects in low earth orbit (LEO) from the size of a large grapefruit to a double decker bus. As it stands, we are already seeing close conjunctions between large objects on an increasingly regular basis. On May 16th, LeoLabs tracked one such close miss of 31m, between two satellites (one was defunct and unable to maneuver).
Source: LeoLabs – On May 16th, a conjunction of 30.6m was tracked between two objects.
Adding to the current risk of collision, over the next decade we are going to launch another 70,000 satellites. An orbital environment with over 100,000 large objects is a recipe for disaster. Policy and governance will be a key first step to mitigating this risk and it needs to be complemented by on-orbit services such as space situational awareness (both from earth and in space), deorbiting of prepared satellites through solutions such as Astroscale’s docking plate, and removal of large legacy objects, for the de-risking of space to be effective. We are walking towards the precipice of a Kessler Syndrome incident that could limit or even shut down our ambitions in space and on-orbit services will be critical to avoiding this disaster.
Astroscale’s Service Provider Agnostic Docking Plate for EOL De-Orbiting of Objects
- LEO is going to get congested, and we need solutions in orbit to ensure safety and usability. When cars first hit the streets in the late 19th century, drivers drove, however they chose to, over roads more suited to horses and carriages. At the advent of mass production in the early 20th century, cars joining the traffic increased exponentially, and accidents started to become more rampant. To improve safety, rules were established and enforced, roads were built with cars in mind and in time, infrastructure to support both vehicles and roadways also became a part of the traffic system.
With an impending 100,000 objects in orbit, we are at a similar point as the automobile industry in the early 20th century. AXA XL estimates that this increased congestion conservatively threatens $35Bil in assets. Global policies and “rules of the road” are an important starting point. These rules have to be complemented by the ability to monitor traffic and affect solutions to avoid conjunctions through third-party initiated maneuvers that will be key to mitigating collisions. When a vehicle breaks down on the road, we tow the vehicle to keep the road safe for other traffic. We will need similar services in space. With more satellites in orbit, we will have a greater number of defunct satellites and our ability to affect maneuvers through on-orbit services will be increasingly critical, especially when conjunction risks involve multiple defunct objects that cannot themselves move out of the way.
The Increasing Congestion in Space Is Going to Need Many of The Traffic Services
We Have on Earth to Keep the In-Orbit Operating Environment Safe
Why space asset owners and operators should want On-Orbit Services
- Strategic options for operators. The geosynchronous Orbit (GEO) satellite business is in flux. The proliferation of LEO mega-constellations, technology evolution in transmission as well as in micro-GEO satellites, and customer demands that are both evolving and fragmenting are driving operators to rethink major investments in new satellites and to consider other options such as squeezing a few more years of service out of their current platforms. For now, the option to extend the usability of a GEO satellite is LEX, where station keeping can be maintained at end of life via a life extension servicer.
Investment in third party assisted LEX capabilities today will also pave the way towards more economical and flexible refueling as a mainstream life extension solution in the coming decade. LEX as an on-orbit service can be a strategic tool for GEO operators in the short to middle term to manage current market complexity and uncertainty. Eventually, its evolution could also provide greater versatility to operation via refueling.
- De-risking satellite operations and business cases. Up to early 2022, about 21% of GEO satellites launched suffered critical anomalies leading up to 100% loss of service. More troublingly, half of those satellites suffered their critical anomalies within the first 2 months of life. When you have GEO satellites that cost upwards of $250M, the balance sheet and business case impact of these losses are significant and for smaller operators, devastating. Insurance covers most of the capital downside but not necessarily business cases and reputational losses. On the insurance side of this challenge, between 2018 and 2021, insurance claims outstripped premiums by almost 10% in value, causing the space insurance segment to suffer significant losses. This has led to premiums increasing by between 200% to 300%, since 2019. In the end, these satellite failures have translated into higher costs for future GEO launches. AXA XL suggests that eighty-six satellites launched since the year 2000 suffered critical anomalies and could have benefitted from on-orbit servicing. In more than half these cases, the satellites would have required more than one service, translating into an annualized seven OOS services a year.
Astroscale’s LEXI GEO Life Extension Servicer
In LEO, the risk is far greater than the $35B asset value suggested earlier. With ambitions to send more people into space for sustained habitation and for missions to the moon, the tangible and intangible risk to life will also skyrocket and we do not have a full accounting of this risk, at present. These yet unbounded risks for crewed missions in the near future, could lead to insurance premiums that do not allow business cases to close. Safer LEO orbits and lower risk GEO business cases facilitated by on-orbit servicing would be a key mechanism to mitigating risks, thus catalyzing these new space businesses.
- Opens space to new startups delivering niche solutions in orbit. The key capabilities that enable OOS are rendezvous and proximity operations, the ability to dock and grapple an object and the ability to move the object. These three technology suites could also support a distributed solutions architecture in orbit, allowing for the development of novel technologies and payloads specifically for customer needs without the burden of developing the other parts of a satellite architecture. This allows for more solutions to make it into orbit, providing customers with a wider array of best-in-class services and alternatives. This distributed architecture and the evolution of base OOS capabilities also holds the promise of cheaper services. One example of this opportunity is the potential evolution of LEX from a station keeping solution by a servicer to a refueling solution by future iterations of those servicers.
If we need OOS (or should want it), why are we yet to see customer adoption?
The two years of COVID has surely impacted the go-to-market timelines for OOS. Dealing with this new reality slowed down development and made customers more reluctant to be early movers. Following the COVID years, socio-political unrest, loss of investor confidence due to underperforming investments in space since 2020, and more critically, rampant inflation leading to other socioeconomic challenges have contributed to greater conservatism in space investments since 2022. Reflecting this reality, feedback from investors in recent fund raises has favored cash preservation and prudence. This time of prudence is further hampering OOS solution development and aggressive commercial rollouts.
That said, it is likely that we are on the eve of the commercialization of OOS. NSR projects that solutions such as LEX, ground based SSA, and space based SSA are at a mid to high Technology Readiness Level (TRL – supply-side readiness to deliver go-to-market solutions) and Market Readiness Level (MRL – demand side readiness to acquire solutions). There is a high probability that the bullishness for the OOS market will start seeing actual wins in the next 12 months. Segments of OOS technologies are ready and gaining confidence while markets may be recovering enough for operators to be able to manage the risk of early adoption and commit to procurement contracts.
The trillion-dollar space economy will not happen without OOS. We will get some way there without it but the risks that blanket the traditional space models will hold back the outcome from its full potential and of course we also have the looming threat of a Kessler Syndrome event, that could more significantly hamper our aspirations in the space economy. The gulf between market expectations over the last six years and actual take-up is not defined by a fundamental misalignment between supply and demand signals. Externalities have hampered OOS becoming operationally mainstream earlier, but the stars are starting to align, and we will be seeing market penetration in the year ahead. As we move through the coming decade, OOS will become a part of standard space operations, and the space economy will be better for it.
Navin Gopal is a sci-fi geek who has been lucky to turn his daydreaming about space into a role that imagineers a sustainable space economy, through building innovative in-orbit strategies and business cases. He joined Astroscale in late 2019 and was instrumental in the acquisition of the Israeli on-orbit services company ESS, which has been foundational to the development of Astroscale’s in-space tugging capabilities. As the VP of Strategy and Business Analysis for Astroscale Holdings, he provides thought leadership and guidance to the company’s global strategy development process, market insights, and the management of the company’s LEO and GEO business cases. He also drives the strategy aspects of acquisitions in the company. Navin holds a BSc in Economics from the US Naval Academy, Annapolis and an MBA from Cranfield University.
Tom Carroll, Manager, Business Development, SpaceLogistics
What is paramount for the commercial satellite industry for the next ten years? Revenue Continuity. It drives every aspect of a commercial satellite operator – return on investment, decisions on future investments, shareholder value, continuation of communication service, improvement or expansion of access (and on and on). Revenues drive the satellite industry.
Over the past decade, commercial satellite operators have been hesitant about investing in new technology. A few have ordered new software-defined payload spacecraft, awaiting delivery in the near future. Many have postponed decisions about spacecraft replacement – only to find the effects of a pandemic dramatically changed the parameters of commercial spacecraft replacement. Price escalated as much as 50 percent; delivery schedule expanded as much as four to five years; launch costs escalated due to delay in new vehicle certification (e.g., Vulcan, New Glenn, Ariane 6) and resultant manifest congestion. Now, a number of satellites are heading for end-of-life of station-keeping capabilities in 2026-2028, with major change to business-case elements for replacing them.
Mission Robotic Vehicle (MRV), SpaceLogistics’ robotic servicing spacecraft. (Credit: Northrop Grumman SpaceLogistics)
Compound this with introduction of services from OneWeb, Starlink, and soon Lightspeed and Amazon Kuiper, potentially providing a super supply of broadband services capabilities. It’s hard to know when, exactly, but soon. And ViaSat’s latest generation of high-speed broadband satellites is coming, too – the newest one just launched.
Mission Extension Pod (MEP), SpaceLogistics’ affordable propulsion-augmentation device for satellites in GEO. (Credit: Northrop Grumman SpaceLogistics)
Against that backdrop, Commercial Satellite Operators must ask: Do you replace an ageing spacecraft with a new one that will provide 15 to 25 years of service, when the market may change dramatically with the new broadband entrants? Each market segment faces challenges that are hard to predict. Broadband services? Direct to home (DTH) services? Will anyone still watch a “live” event, such as sports or political speeches? Will that satellite industry be reduced to live events? Wars? Natural disasters? Will this be enough to sustain the investment for such technology? Will the broadband services be able to support live streaming (most likely)? And what about evolving markets? Will software-defined satellites become the answer? Will they work?
What if operators could delay the decision another four to six years? Extend the life of existing satellites in GEO, to see if markets really change or if new ones mature?
A simple solution to consider: keep your current assets that are generating reasonable revenues right now operating longer, until you can measure changes in the market and assess future strategies with new satellite capacity.
Available now is a small spacecraft that can provide propulsion augmentation to existing satellites in GEO, extending their life by six to eight years, depending on the spacecraft’s dry mass. SpaceLogistics, which has been providing its first-generation satellite life-extension capability for over five years in orbit, is now contracting for deliveries of its second-generation life-extension capability. The Mission Extension Pod (MEP) is an affordable, low-risk life-extension solution that is installed by the Mission Robotic Vehicle (MRV) via the liquid apogee engine (LAE) nozzle on the aft side of a satellite. Adding the “jet pack” requires no surgery to your spacecraft – no cutting, welding and/or plumbing . . .just attached with our unique design directly to the LAE nozzle (used for obit-raising many years ago, after launch).
The MEP has everything it needs to provide augmented propulsion to your spacecraft – batteries, solar arrays, TT&C communications, ion propulsion (redundant), xenon propellent, gyros. It’s basically a small spacecraft attached to your spacecraft that you will own, operate, and can use to re-locate your communication satellite as desired, even to the graveyard at the end of service. As a unique, standalone spacecraft, you can even resell the MEP, if it has residual fuel, to another operator – or move it to another one of your spacecraft. SpaceLogistics just has to return with the MRV and undock, move and redock to new spacecraft for you.
MRV and MEP, SpaceLogistics next-generation in-space servicing system is slated for launch in early 2025. (Credit: Northrop Grumman SpaceLogistics)
Determining if your spacecraft can use MEP to extend its life just requires some basic information, including:
- Satellite manufacturer and model
- Whether it has a LAE nozzle
- Dry mass and any residual fuel mass, estimated for time of docking
- Inclination at time of estimated docking (number of degrees – hopefully zero)
With that, SpaceLogistics can initiate a compatibility study with the original spacecraft manufacturer to confirm suitability, a process that takes about 30 days.
Revenue continuity is just one reason to consider using satellite life-extension services. Another justification is in the event of a spacecraft anomaly in the propulsion system, or an anomaly of the launch vehicle injection parameters, where the spacecraft had to use larger quantity of on-board fuel for orbit-raising to GEO. MEP can restore loss of spacecraft propulsion capability through affordable augmentation.
Contact SpaceLogistics today for an in-depth review of capabilities. Delivery windows are five per year, with nothing available before 2027. Others have made the decision to synch their solutions to the future of changing marketplaces. If you have a satellite with an EOL in the 2027 to 2028 time period, you need to engage with us soon.
Thomas Carroll is a manager of business development for SpaceLogistics, a Northrop Grumman company. He is responsible for delivering on-orbit servicing capabilities to commercial satellite operators. Carroll has 20+ years’ experience in commercial launch service business development, sales and marketing. Prior to joining Northrop Grumman in 2018, Carroll spent 17 years with International Launch Services, where he was vice president of sales. He also served as sales director for North America at ORBCOMM as it began commercial satellite service. He holds a bachelor’s degree in finance from George Mason University, and an MBA from the University of Mary Washington.