Reimagining Space: Unlocking IOSM
In this article, we will be discussing in-orbit servicing and manufacturing, and what the future holds for us as space becomes a vital component of the infrastructure that impacts our daily lives.
We’re moving into an era of space infrastructure where the size of what can be fitted into a rocket is no longer a constraint to what can operate in space. In-Orbit Servicing and Manufacturing (IOSM) is a nascent market with huge opportunities in low earth orbit and increasingly in higher and higher orbits.
IOSM is more than just servicing and manufacturing. It also covers inspection, repair, assembly, and perhaps even recycling. These operations have all for the most part already happened in space to some degree. The assembly of the International Space Station, for example, took 30 missions to complete whilst the Hubble Space Telescope has been inspected, repaired, and upgraded throughout its lifespan. So, if these activities are nothing new, what is so exciting about IOSM?
IOSM focuses on the commercial aspect of space, rather than being concerned with astronomy or scientific exploration. In other words, it’s more about the money. And if we are to explore and utilize resources in the solar system in the future, money will by and large be what fuels the rockets. It cannot be driven by science alone.
In-Orbit Servicing and Manufacturing is one of the most defining technologies for the 21st century. Not only is it exciting, not only does it offer huge commercial opportunity, it brings together a whole variety of different organizations from different sectors to create something which is probably going to see one of the most significant revolutions in technology and services for this century, setting the scene for future centuries.
What do we mean by it? Well, it’s taking technologies, which we would use on Earth to build things. For example, if you want to fit a kitchen in your house, you’re going to need to bring a variety of services in, and you’re going to probably need a plumber. You’re going to need someone who can do tile work, you’re going to need an electrician, and you’re going to need a whole series of bits to build that kitchen, oven, sink, and kitchen cabinets. IOSM is taking all those activities and building your kitchen in space. But in this case, we’re not building kitchens; we’re building spacecraft. We’re building orbital power stations, we’re mining asteroids, we’re going to the moon to find materials which allow us to go beyond the solar system. It’s bringing together technologies in space to build them, together with the right services, the right people and the right capabilities.
In the last 30 years we’ve built the International Space Station and we’ve repaired the Hubble Space Telescope. In fact, we’ve inspected it, then we’ve worked out it was broken, then we’ve come back again, to fix it with new parts, and we’ve upgraded it. We’re already starting to move things around orbit, collecting things which are broken and, in some cases, trying to repair things which are broken and maybe fixable. We’re also reusing spacecraft, which have run out of fuel. All of these activities are beginning to happen already. And what we’re beginning to see now is a collection of new organizations coming in and saying: “we can do this, this is an opportunity, I want to do this”.
Every time what an organization finds an opportunity, another related organization understands that, in order to complete that task, you’re going to need ‘X’ – we can provide ‘X’.
There is a mass cascade as this chain reaction of new organizations come together. That’s the opportunity.
HOW DO WE GET THERE?
The UK is great at innovating. For example, inventing microchips, arm building, microprocessors (which power all our mobile devices almost to date) and coming up with processes like the internet. We create those capabilities. The UK is good at materials, it’s good at robotics, haptics (the ability to control things affect our emotions), and communications. The challenge is getting all these elements together.
So how do we spread the word? And how do we increase that message that the UK isn’t just good, we’re brilliant at Space? The best way to do that, for the most part, is by supporting and showcasing companies.
Small and innovative companies can do things which the larger companies can’t, on a much quicker timescale. SMEs can build, test, and develop on the timescale of months, rather than years or decades.
Although we do think of Russia in the US when we think of space, the UK strengths are in innovation, and supporting new companies. The support which the UK Space Agency, European Space Agency and organisations like the Satellite Applications Catapult provide to SMEs is crucial. The UK does have a very small population, but we have a very highly developed space economy. We have satellite manufacturers, we have satellite component manufacturers, and we have launch services and spaceports coming online soon.
The sky is no longer the limit to what we can achieve.
This article is a summary of discussions on our In-Orbit Podcast Series.