Satellite Servicing and Small Satellites – Coming of Age

The Orbital ATK Rendezvous, Proximity Operations and Docking (RPOD) Lab uses full scale mock-ups of client vehicle and Mission Extension Vehicles to test RPOD sensors, actuators, control algorithms and contact dynamics of our satellite servicing vehicles. Credit: Orbital ATK.

Does it seem to you that satellite servicing and small satellites are more frequently in the news? It wasn’t always the case, but many believed it was just a matter of time when these business segments would begin to have an impact. This interview by Eva-Jane Lark from the September 2012 issue of Space Quarterly Magazine is with Jim Armor Major General (retired), one of those believers. A the time Armor was VP Strategy and Development at ATK Space Systems but and is now Staff Vice President at Orbital ATK. As satellite servicing becomes a reality and small satellites begin to proliferate, this interview is still relevant.

Satellite Servicing and Small Satellites – Coming of Age

Eva: Satellite servicing is starting to become a hot topic, with multiple strategies being developed. Can you tell us more about the approach/projects you are leading at ATK?

Jim: It is a hot topic indeed! We have a history here at ATK of supporting satellite servicing with NASA, for example, the Hubble Space Missions. We did all the astronaut tools, and much of the mission planning for the Hubble repair missions, here in Beltsville, Maryland. We are right next to Goddard Space Center. As you can imagine, there is a soft spot in our heart for satellite servicing. We’ve got a three prong approach going forward. With civil space, we are continuing with our engineering service support to NASA Goddard’s satellite servicing programs. Today that is the RESTORE program run out of the Goddard Satellite Servicing Capabilities Office (SSCO) under Frank Cepollina. We are about a third of that program office with our engineers. RESTORE is designed to refuel a government satellite. I think they have targeted a NOAA GOES satellite.

Jim Armor
Jim Armor. Credit: Orbital ATK.

The second leg is with the Department of Defense (DoD), in this case the DARPA program and its name is Phoenix. There is a large government and industry team pulling the pieces of the DARPA Phoenix program together, and we’ve been notified that we have been selected for providing the satellite bus. We’ve also been selected to provide a couple of the tools to be held by the end-effectors at the end of the robot arm. These include a grabber tool for grabbing things in space; and a cutter tool, the aperture grasp and separator tool – the AGST. We are also doing some systems engineering support as well. Phoenix is a pretty exciting mission as well.

The third leg of our ATK approach, after civil and DoD, is a purely commercial program. We have partnered with another firm, U.S. Space LLC, to create a new company called ViviSat. We are the mission prime for the ViviSat offering. ViviSat is designed around a mission extension vehicle (MEV), which is a straight forward little jet pack. It docks with commercial comsats and offers basic attitude control and propulsion. It’s an electronic propulsion (EP) system. It’s very simple and is designed, like the name suggests, for extending the life of commercial comsats that are out of fuel but that are otherwise operating fine.


Eva: How does what ATK is doing differ from what MacDonald Dettwiler (MDA) has proposed?

Jim: I don’t know exactly what MacDonald Dettwiler’s satellite servicing offer was, other than what I read in the newspapers over the last year. As far as I can determine at this point, they are not actively pushing that anymore. Now, on the Phoenix program, they have been selected by DARPA to provide the robot arm and I think a little bit of engineering support too. So we are partnered with MDA on the Phoenix mission. We are part of the same industry team working also with NASA and the Naval Research Lab for that mission. As is often the case in industry, we compete at one level and collaborate on others.

Eva: Are there other competitors in this “space”?

Jim: There are a lot of other industry players around the world that have what I would call “pieces of technology” than can contribute to satellite servicing missions. We are talking with many of them about what they might bring to the table on a commercial enterprise for satellite servicing. More details become proprietary… so I’ll stop there.

Eva: Of course, we totally understand that. Phoenix is often referred to as the Zombie sat project. How many dead satellites are there (approximately) in space that could be retrofitted to come back to life or scavenged for spare parts that could be used to help another satellite?

Jim: I have no idea how many dead satellites there are – quite a few, I suspect. Phoenix’s baseline mission is not looking for a dead satellite as such but one that is just past its end of life. It would be still controllable so we don’t have to go grab something that is completely cold and difficult to get hold of.

Eva: Antennas are frequently discussed with regards to Phoenix, that it involves detaching the antennas for reuse on other satellites to then fly in a kind of formation. Are the antennas that much more valuable than the satellites themselves?

Jim: It’s not the price of the antenna, per se. It is building it and packaging it and launching it that is expensive. So if you didn’t have to do that – and this is the theory that DARPA is pursuing – then you could grab a perfectly good aperture in space, an antenna, and connect it up with the guts of a satellite. DARPA calls them “satlets”, and you could attach them to a harvested aperture and make it work. I think it is revolutionary, actually. If it catches on, future satellite designers could make it easier to separate parts on-orbit, either for active servicing or for post-life salvaging. If this is proven out, it really could be a paradigm shift.

Eva: Are there other parts that are especially useful?

Jim: That is hard to say, end-of-life solar arrays might be useful. David Barnhart at DARPA would be better to ask. He is in charge of the program.

Eva: Do you think future satellites will be built with on-orbit servicing in mind?

Jim: Well, I sure hope so. That’s why we are seriously engaged in civil and military programs, and investing in commercial enterprises. We think there is a potential burgeoning market that would enable even more things to happen in space.

After Phoenix harvests the apertures, are there any plans to tow the dead satellite(s) out of GEO to a Lagrange point? To free up an orbital slot for reuse, for instance?

Not that I am aware of. The test case that DARPA is doing is going to a satellite that is near, but not in GEO. The geostationary belt is busy. You have to be extremely careful when you are trying major experiments like this not to disrupt ongoing activities in GEO. The Phoenix mission operation’s design is not finalized yet. As far as towing to a Lagrange point, that sounds really cool, but I haven’t heard anything along those lines.

Eva: Do satellite servicing techniques and technologies have impacts for space development beyond extending the life or servicing a satellite?

Jim: Oh, absolutely. We’ve been in discussions with a number of commercial telecommunications satellite operators and their imagination knows no bounds! We have also talked with satellite manufacturers and end users across the whole business area. There are a lot of good ideas. If you design the commercial comsat ahead of time for this kind of servicing then it is even easier. If the comsat has a place where you can plug in an extra battery, or you can easily decouple a solar array or aperture and put on a new one then the possibilities expand dramatically. This is also true with NASA science missions, if you can plug in a different payload. We learned that lesson working on the Hubble spacecraft, which was called “servicing friendly”. It wasn’t perfectly designed for servicing, but we discovered that even simple things, like good attach-points, can get you a long way.

Eva: One of the things that I keep hearing is that satellite owners are not enthusiastically embracing the solutions that are being proposed. Why do you think that is? Have you held discussions with commercial satellite owners and operators? What do they need to have happen before utilizing these services? Are they waiting for proof-of-concept? Or??

Jim: At one level, I disagree with your assumption that they are not enthusiastically embracing this.

Eva: Great! I’m happy to be mistaken on this. We are having broad and productive discussions with a lot of them. That said, they are conservative, with a lot of “I’m from Missouri, show me…”. They ask “Can it do this, can it do that”? There are questions on how this would be insured. There is a lot of discussion about it. They do have an ongoing business, with steady revenue that meets the firms’ return on investment goals, so it is understandable that a lot of questions are being asked about this new technology. Those are robust discussions. We are coming at this market with the ViviSat mission extension vehicle which is a very simple device. We are trying a crawl, walk, run approach. It is a simple docking with a mechanical interface only. There are no electrical connections. There is no fluid transfer. It does not disrupt ongoing comsat operations. There are no complex robotics, except for the docking mechanism. That’s reassuring, if you will. Our long term plans are to grow those capabilities over time, but for now just sweet and simple to build market confidence. Basically we are in very good discussions with a lot of potential customers.

Eva: Will a successful mission for the ViviSat be the type of proof-of-concept that the commercial sector needs to see?

Jim: I think, yes. But it is not just the proof-of-concept, it will actually do the mission, do the life extension.

Eva: By proof-of-concept, I mean addressing that “I’m from Missouri” mindset.

Jim: We’re convinced that once we do it for one satellite, the conservatism may mitigate a bit. In addition to the existing commercial comsat operators, there is a pool of potential comsat operators interested in what an MEV can bring to the table. Some are interested in using an MEV simply to hold an orbital slot. Or be on stand-by in case something does go wrong. They are coming up with some pretty imaginative ways of using this. We are very encouraged.

Eva: Would the MEV be particularly useful for a constellation?

Jim: As a constellation management tool, yes.

Eva: Let’s talk about the small satellite market. There seems to be lots of activity in this arena especially at the academic level and now at the commercial level. What impact do you feel this will have on space development? On the satellite industry?

Jim: Let me start with the academic side, there is a lot of interest in the cubesat and nanosat from an academic point of view, and I love that! I think that is so cool – it draws interest from a wide variety of young people with lots of great ideas. I’m a STEM education advocate and this to me, is a really great thing because it is drawing a much wider audience into the space business. It gets the creative juices flowing and gives us more opportunity to get people interested in bigger space missions. But we’ve found, as an industry I think, that the cubesat, nanosat is not all that profitable. It is great for research and experiments and education. But when you get people engaged in it, they want a little bit more performance; they want a little bit longer life. Pretty soon you are talking into the 15kg payload range, and that’s where ATK has become really good. We’ve become skilled at the small end of the satellite business – up to and including the MEV class which is about 1800kg. We think that the small satellite market is coming of age for a lot of reasons. The sensor technology, in particular, just like on the ground with computers and cell phones shrinking and getting more and more capabilities, those sensors and payloads on satellites are getting smaller and smaller so you don’t need as big a satellite to do similar missions. We partnered with a number of folks including NASA, and other sensor providers, like Goodrich and Raytheon, to make some pretty good satellites that are small.

The other trend is from the government needs side. Up until now they have built these huge, exquisite expensive satellites. Well, in case you haven’t noticed we are out of tax dollars, so they are looking for ways to downsize and reduce costs while at the same time increase the resiliency of their constellations so that they don’t have all their eggs in one basket, either for a launch failure or accidents in space. They are turning to smaller satellites as well. The Air Force, in particular, is looking at TACSAT-3 and ORS-1, both of which ATK built, as models for all their space mission areas. NASA is also looking at additional smaller experiments such as THEMIS and the WISE telescope, which can do limited missions very well. Again, I think the small satellite business has come of age. It offers an augmentation to the large satellites. We are still going to need the large ones due to the limits of the laws of physics. The James Webb Space Telescope for example – ATK has a lot of content in the James Webb Telescope – I love, and I think it is a really important mission. It simply can’t be done with small spacecraft.

Eva: Do you think these smaller sats will generate new uses or applications that don’t exist today?

Jim: I do, I do. Because these sensors and payloads are getting smaller and more innovative, I think more people, bubbling up for the small academic end are finding more and more uses for them. We are working with people coming out of Silicon Valley that just have gang-buster ideas. I can’t talk about the details unfortunately but they have very creative new uses for small satellites or clusters of small satellites. We think we are in the right markets and have postured ourselves very well; we see lots of activity, lots of interest. We just issued a new spec sheet for a family of satellites, the ATK A-Series satellite buses that range from the A100 which has about a 15kg payload, up to the A700 which is the MEV class of 1800kg. We are pretty excited about it. It’s fun being here.

Eva: That’s great! So small satellites are being embraced by existing companies such as ATK, do you also see an influx of new players or participants in the marketplace in the same way that there was as computers become smaller.

Jim: Yes I do. And I hope so. I think there will be a lot of great ideas to pursue. We are looking for it to be a pretty active market.

Eva: What impact do you feel that cubesat and nanosats in particular may have on the satellite business, and on the space environment – particularly related to space debris mitigation and increased risk of collisions?

Jim: Debris is a concern. It is a personal concern. ATK has developed some debris mitigation technologies that they have shared with DARPA and NASA. Right now we are trying to characterize the issues, just like a lot of people in government and outside – including the Secure World Foundation and others – who are trying to ensure we have a sustainable space vision. As long as you keep the cubesats in low earth orbit and they don’t have long lives to them, you’re probably okay. But as people want to put them higher and higher, we’re going to have to find some way to deal with it. Maybe that means giving them little propulsion systems that allow them to re-enter. I don’t know what the answer is frankly.

Eva: You have had an illustrious career – in the Air Force, as an astronaut, at the NRO, as a General and the Director in charge of the National Security Space Office (NSSO). You’ve looked at space from almost every side now. Have you come to any insights from that perspective, about how the various players could better work together to advance spacefaring activities in a cost-effective manner?

Jim: Thank you, that’s very kind of you to say. (And while I was trained as an astronaut I never flew. It was a wonderful experience, but the Challenger tragedy ended my flight opportunity.) I thought in most cases during my career that industry and the different agencies – civil, military and intelligence sectors – actually worked pretty well together, and experienced only the same problems that any major acquisition programs run into. Stability of budget is always a problem; stability of requirements is always a problem. I’ve concluded that today the space industry, and the space community, is a mature industry. We know how to spec and build satellites. There is a robust commercial comsat business; there is a pretty good commercial imagery business, an international launch business, etc. It is time to transition to commercial practices. I think the government, NASA, the Air Force and others, have a little bit of a hard time letting go. You mentioned computers earlier. The government doesn’t make computers anymore: it buys them off the shelf. NASA is starting a program of commercial resupply of the International Space Station, and there were a number of commercial competitors. It’s time to continue that trend and transition over to commercial business practices.

Eva: Are there any technologies you felt were critical when you were at the NSSO that you haven’t seen being developed yet? Why? What will it take for these to be created?

Jim: Technologies, no. They were all pretty well covered. Some I can’t talk about. Now there are some grand missions that I would like to see pursued, personally. These are my own views. Space-Based Solar Power has a lot of potential. I’ve seen some tentative commercial start-ups interested in it, and I hope the government or governments will end up a little more interested in that. That would be the one thing I would like to see evolve more. I was happy that I could sign off that report as I left that and put it on the table for consideration. It’s big and complicated. It will require on-orbit assembly and things like that. Oh! (laughing…) And by the way ATK does on-orbit servicing and assembly.

Eva: Oh – they do assembly as well as servicing…?

Jim: How about that! I’d like to see some progress along those lines.

Eva: What other exciting projects are you (or ATK) working on that we may be unfamiliar with and interested in?

Jim: Funny you should mention that… a lot of what I have been talking to the press about recently has been ATK’s role with Curiosity and the Mars Mission. We have a number of roles in that. We were part of the industry team at pretty much every step of the mission. We were part of the Atlas V rocket that launched it. We did some of the major structural components. We also built five of the propellant tanks, two were used by the cruise thrusters, to get from Earth to Mars, and three of the tanks were used for the descent thrusters for landing on Mars. We also helped design and develop the terminal descent sensor, which was looking for Martian surface as it landed, so we didn’t crash into Mars.

Eva: What a great landing!

Jim: What a tremendous landing that was – so cool! We provided key technical support for the deployment mechanism on the remote sensing mast– that is like a giant knuckle that rotated the sensor mast upward from the robotic platform. That deployed successfully after landing, so we were really happy about that. There were instruments that we built, the SAM, the Sample Analysis Mars, a suite of instruments, we helped pull that together. There is a separate experiment called the CheMin, Chemistry and Mineralogy Instrument, a sensor designed to identify and quantity the minerals in the rocks and soil of Mars. Boy, that was a really complicated thing. I wish I could show you the picture of it – it has a little funnel where the dirt is dumped, peizoelectric shakers, x-ray diffraction and all sorts of cool stuff to suss out what minerals are in the Mars soil.

Eva: Any idea how early in Curiosity’s mission it will be used?

Jim: No, I don’t. We’re biting our nails waiting to see that it works well. They are taking their time, appropriately. They are taking a very measured, careful approach to turning on the experiments.

Eva: That experiment and instrument could be one of the most exciting, especially with the recent headlines about asteroid mining and Planetary Resources.

Jim: Absolutely! I will tell you ATK is talking to Planetary Resources and other folks, as we do bring a lot to the table in terms of instruments and tools, robotics, servicing, and integrated spacecraft.

The final part of the Curiosity mission ATK worked on is the integrated thermal systems: both for the in-flight, cruise portion and on the surface, on the robot: both the external and internal thermal, the radiators and the heat pipes. It’s got an RTG (Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator) in it for its power source and managing the heat is probably one of the toughest designs we have ever done. You have to design for in-spaceflight, and for planetary, with some atmosphere, so you can’t quite use the same radiation techniques that you do in deep space. It was quite a challenge and we are pretty excited. The thermal systems enable the operation of the rover. Thermal systems are crucial. But so far so good! Everything has worked perfectly. We are very happy to be part of the larger industry team.

On James Webb, by the way, ATK built the back-plane and a lot of the high precision structure, the lightweight composite structure for that whole vehicle. We have some other components and engineering content as well. Pretty much everything that is up there we/ATK have some internal pieces or engineering support involved.

Eva: It’s fascinating to see how much more some of the large space companies, like ATK, do beyond what they are stereotypically known for…

Jim: Well, that’s why we were happy to talk to you! We do have a great story here. It’s why I came to ATK, because I got a whole range of things that I could play with – from the components to the engineering services, to the small satellite business, to satellite servicing, to the launch business. This is a pretty cool place. I’m still having fun!

Eva: Fabulous! By the way, why or how did you join the Air Force and get into the space business?

Jim: Well, I was drafted! I was in ROTC and going to Lehigh University in Pennsylvania, where I had a really good experience. I joined the Air Force through ROTC because I was going to be drafted otherwise. And frankly the Air Force treated me so well. They gave me so many challenging things to do, including being an astronaut, being program director for GPS, conducting launches. It so helped me grow up as a person and become who I am today, that I just want to thank the Air Force. They are a great organization. Did I disagree with them a lot? You bet. But it is a great organization that has really brought a lot to the nation and the world and to the space business in particular.

Eva: Thank you so much, Jim, for sharing on your thoughts on so many timely topics!

About Eva-Jane Lark

Eva-Jane Lark is a Vice-President and Investment Advisor at one of Canada’s largest full-service investment firms. A passionate observer and advocate of commercial space development, she is frequently invited as a speaker and panelist to offer her keen insights into emerging new space industries and their financing, and on space resource development.

Leave a Reply