The Billion Dollar Opportunity for UK Space: In Orbit Servicing and Manufacturing

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After twelve years and $1.5bn dollars, NASA and ESA launched the Hubble Space Telescope in April 1990. Hubble was designed to study the history and evolution of the universe (amongst other objectives) by taking images of galaxies never seen before by the human eye.

But there was a problem. The first images that returned to earth were out of focus. A spherical aberration in Hubble’s mirror, 1/50th the size of a human hair, meant the blurry images could not be accurately observed. Left untreated, the mission would be a failure and an international embarrassment.

The ‘Trouble with Hubble’ needed fixing. But the Hubble was already in-orbit.

Three years later, NASA launched the STS-61 servicing mission. Replacing the mirror was not viable; STS-61 instead opted for a more practical solution. In the same way a person wears glasses to correct their vision, astronauts added a lens to rectify the optics of the Hubble mirror. Crisis averted.

Hubble was supposed to last five years. Thirty years and five servicing missions later, the telescope continues to make ground-breaking astronomical discoveries.

Today, in-orbit servicing forms part of a market set to be worth $4.4bn by the end of 2030. In an industry which the UK, if strategic, can seize $1bn.

In September 2021, the Satellite Applications Catapult held a workshop titled ‘Exploring the Future for In-Orbit Servicing and Manufacturing’ (IOSM). Industry and thought leaders delved into the economics and mechanics of this exciting opportunity.

IOSM has huge potential to transform the space economy and drive down costs through operations primarily in Low Earth Orbit. These include inspection, servicing, repair, assembly, and perhaps even recycling.

Many of these skills have already been developed. The Hubble Space Telescope is perhaps the most famous example of in orbit servicing, whilst the assembly of the International Space Station took over forty missions. But manufacturing in space is yet to be realised.

Historically, space missions have been bound by the payload capacity of the rocket they are launched from. Much of the weight of a rocket is taken up by fuel, so the larger the rocket the more expensive the mission. But we are now entering an era where the size of a rocket does not determine what we can build in space.

And access to space is changing. Thanks to the reduced cost of launching into orbit, space is no longer reserved for governments and a few large, extremely wealthy companies. Commercial opportunities in space are being realised. Where previous space endeavours have been concerned with scientific exploration and research, ‘new space’ is being fuelled by business.

And the markets are beginning to take shape. Active Debris Removal missions have been conceptualised and tested. Companies collecting defunct satellites and ‘space junk’ will soon provide access to clean space, strengthen the UK supply chain, and grow new services for the UK space industry. The skills and experience learned on these missions will be the precursor for servicing tasks in the future. From servicing, the manufacturing of megastructures such as space based solar polar plants will be enabled, as well as asteroid mining.

Now is the time for the UK to act if it wants to be a key player in this nascent but highly prosperous industry.

To find out how, watch the recording of “Exploring the Future for In-Orbit Servicing and Manufacturing” hosted by the Satellite Applications Catapult.