Speaker Interview: Jonathan Goff, CEO, Altius Space Machines
Hi Jon, could you please tell us a little bit more about Altius Space Machines?
Altius Space Machines is a space robotics and technology company that is developing the interfaces, robotics, and vehicles for affordable satellite servicing and space logistics.
You will participate in The Time is Now: Prolonging Missions, Reducing Costs and Contributing to Space Safety with On-orbit Servicing panel on Tuesday May 19. Altius is developing the Bulldog family, a tug vehicle which will service micro satellites. Could you share the progress of Bulldog with us and what makes this servicing system stand out from competitors?
Bulldog is a microsatellite (<100kg) sized servicing tug that is optimized for affordable servicing of multi-plane LEO constellations. Just as disaggregated LEO constellations have been in many places replacing or complementing large unitary spacecraft in LEO or GEO for Earth observation and telecoms, Altius intends to build a small constellation of Bulldog servicers to service constellations and individual spacecraft in LEO. Another unique feature of Bulldog is that is being optimized for servicing of cooperative spacecraft which have incorporated grappling features, cooperative refuelling interfaces, and modular plug-and-play interfaces, as opposed to being focused on servicing legacy spacecraft that have not been built with interfaces in mind. Currently, Altius has been focusing on the interfaces and the grappling robotics for Bulldog and is in the early phases of finalizing the Bulldog spacecraft design.
There is a growing interest in servicing missions from government and commercial organizations alike. How do you envision on-orbit servicing will impact the way future satellite (constellations) are developed and procured?
I see a couple of major changes servicing will enable for constellations and larger spacecraft:
- For larger spacecraft, I think that once modular servicing has been proven out, that most operators will insist on having their satellites incorporate modular interface ports to enable repairs, upgrades, and new hosted payloads to be installed. Over time I think you’ll see operators begin leveraging those capabilities to not only extend the life of assets, but to upgrade them over their lifetime, so that in many cases the spacecraft is more capable at the end of its life than at the start.
- To offset the potential lost revenues from replacing prematurely failed satellites, I think satellite manufacturers may start bundling on-orbit servicing subscription packages with their spacecraft. Kind of like how you can get “Geek Squad” coverage for expensive consumer electronics.
- I think the era of it being OK to leave some dead satellites on orbit, so long as you had a good plan and tried your best, may be coming to an end. If deorbit services providers like Altius, Astroscale, etc. can get the cost of disposing of a dead satellite down to a reasonable fraction of the replacement cost of a satellite, it’s unlikely regulators will be ok with large constellations leaving large numbers of satellites on-orbit. Assuming that’s correct, I think you’ll start seeing insurance products being developed for guaranteeing reliable disposal.
- For constellations, I think you’ll see some early adopters realizing that modular servicing ports are also a great way to provide a standardized interface for hosted payloads. This might help rejuvenate the market for hosted payloads.
- Also, historically for new constellations, many forces have pushed the first generation of satellites to fly for a lot longer than originally intended – Iridium’s first-gen constellation was retired something like 20 years into a seven-year mission. If any of the first-gen constellations can be convinced to put servicing interfaces on their satellites, they may end up being grateful for having done so when they have to eke out more life of their spacecraft.
I have other ideas, but those are a few that come to mind off the top of my head.
Which advancements in technology are still required in order to lift servicing missions to the next level? For example, in the field of robotics, antennas or docking systems?
The main area that I think is lacking is affordable robotics and cooperative interfaces. These are two of the areas Altius is focusing most of its resources on. For instance, Altius is working on developing a deployable magnetic capture manipulator that can enable reliable capture of even tumbling targets. Altius is also working on grappling interfaces (DogTags) and modular connector and/or refuelling interfaces (MagTags).
In terms of industry news, what development, announcement or otherwise has stood out most to you in the past year and why?
Probably the most important was the launch of Northrop Grumman SpaceLogistics’ Mission Extension Vehicle. This mission will be the first example of a fully-commercial satellite servicing mission, and I’m hopeful that the mission goes well, and leads to more customer demand for their services.
Second most important announcement may be our announcement that OneWeb will be buying almost 600 of our grappling fixtures. This represents one of the first instances that a constellation operator has decided to deliberately make their satellites servicing-compatible.
If you could have one historical figure over to dinner, who would it be and why?
It’s hard to pick, though it probably wouldn’t be someone directly related to satellite servicing. If I could go back in time, I’d probably be most interested in catching dinner with a famous explorer from history, like Marco Polo, Leif Erikson, Ernest Shackleton, or Lewis and Clarke.
Hear Jonathan speak at Space Tech Conference, May 19-20, 2020, in Long Beach, CA. View the agenda and register for your free pass here.