Cultivating Leadership in Space Through Strong Bridges Between Commercial, National Security and Exploration Collaborators

Author ImageBy Nicole Heins, Senior Conference Producer at Space Tech Expo USA & Europe

Traditionally, civil and military organizations were the two key players in the US space industry. In the last decade, commercial space players have pushed their way up, some establishing themselves as leading commercial organizations, such as SpaceX, to provide space technology and services to commercial, national security and civil customers. These commercial players have paved the way for many new entrants to enter the market who are now becoming successful, including Phase Four, Made In Space and Rocket Lab. Commercial space has established itself as the third player in this newly formed triangle.

Now more than ever, these three main players in the industry are intertwining and relying more on one another, as they increase collaboration and partnerships on a wide variety of missions to grow the US space industry. There are growing concerns on protecting assets in space while there is also a great ambition of returning to the Moon. During the research for Space Tech Expo, we have found various key areas where collaboration is required and is increasing between these three pillars, in order to maintain a strong position of the US in space. We have highlighted a few of them below.

One of the services that are increasingly attracting collaboration between commercial, military and civil entities is satellite servicing. More and more organizations recognize the potentials and capabilities of on-orbit servicing, with US Air Force being one of the most recent end-users voicing their interest. In 2019, LA-based Space and Missile Systems Center (SMC) issued a request for information on this technology, and now aims to be able to maneuver satellites in the later 2020s. SMC also issued a contract to Northrop Grumman owned SpaceLogistics in 2019. The commercial business launched its first satellite servicing system, MEV-1, last October which is currently on its way to Intelsat’s 901 satellite to provide it with a new burst of life. From a civil standpoint, there has been an increasing call to action for satellite servicing and other technologies, most recently from ESA Director-General Jan Woerner, to relieve the issue of space debris and space situational awareness.

Another area that is requiring continuous partnerships and collaboration is that of on-orbit assembly, and in particular the activities that relate to the recent lunar programs, such as the contracts issued around NASA’s Moon 2 Mars and Artemis initiatives.

Aside from agreeing contracts with launch service providers and prime contractors working on launch vehicles and crew modules, there is a huge call on smaller commercial organizations to come up with ideas on on-orbit assembly and manufacturing, communication systems, power management, propulsion systems, advanced materials and other technologies required to assemble an infrastructure beyond low-Earth orbit. An example of this is the work that Made In Space is currently undertaking.  

A third key area is the use of software and advanced computer systems on satellites and other spacecraft. Software-defined satellites offer flexible services as they can configure to changing customer requirements. Software also allows for rapid Earth observation data analysis for commercial and intelligence purposes. At the same time, it can enhance our missions as technologies such as machine learning and artificial intelligence allow us to have advanced systems in orbit, without requiring as much operational manpower on the ground.

But software has a downside: it can be tampered with, or in a worst-case scenario, hacked. As more space systems will become software defined, and as more data will be collected from commercial and intelligence satellites, the need to be able to have secure software is becoming greater. Especially as there is an increasing requirement for near real-time satellite data. Technology organizations such as IBM, Microsoft and Google are working on a variety of new technologies in collaboration with space organizations. One example is the work of NASA and Google on a quantum computer, while IBM is working actively on providing secure technologies, such as blockchain, for (commercial) space organizations.

Space Tech Expo USA Conference, which covers the theme of building bridges between commercial space, national security and exploration brings together key stakeholders, including Made In Space, SpaceLogistics, Virgin Orbit, Intelsat and Slingshot Aerospace, to discuss cutting edge examples of technology development and collaboration on the above topics. Simultaneously, the conference addresses other key areas of collaboration, including rapid technology innovation and lifting new technologies, such as additive manufacturing, to the next level in space. Join us on May 19-20 in Long Beach, CA!