An ambitious private sector effort to create a space-station business park is the latest development in the fledgling "Space as a Service" innovation ecosystem, which could greatly expand the potential impact of technologies being developed by federally funded space tech companies.
As described in a November 1 BizWest Media article, the announcement last week that Louisville-based Sierra Space and Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin will build a space station called “Orbital Reef” in low-Earth orbit is the latest and most high-profile example of the development of “Space as a Service,” platforms where manufacturing, research and development, tourism and other private-sector activities can be done without the constraints of gravity.
“We see many possibilities for businesses that could utilize space, including several industries including manufacturing, pharmaceuticals, universities, medical and disease research, and any scientific study that could benefit from zero gravity,” said John Roth, vice president for business development at Sierra Space, whose president is former NASA astronaut Janet Kavandi. “Our new space-station business park, Orbital Reef, plans on offering the infrastructure to allow a tenant to rent out space — from a locker to a whole module.”
Jacksonville, Florida-based Redwire is providing its microgravity research, development and manufacturing, payload operations and deployable structures, and Orbital Reef will use Sierra Space’s large Integrated Flexible Environment (LIFE) module, node module and Dream Chaser space plane for crew and cargo transportation. Capable of landing on runways worldwide, the reusable Dream Chaser has been on Sierra’s drawing boards for well over a decade, and won a NASA contract in 2015 to make supply runs to the International Space Station (ISS) alongside competing space firm SpaceX Corp. and defense contractor Northrop Grumman Corp.
Sierra Space in May signed a memorandum of understanding with Redwire that its planned commercial space station could be used for manufacturing and other in-space services; that project has since become much more ambitious. Also this year, Sierra Space formed partnerships with Kentucky-based Space Tango, a firm specializing in microgravity and automated systems, and Japanese company Kanematsu Corp.
Those partnerships, also targeting low Earth orbit, are “another step in bringing together different pieces of the new space economy and ecosystem to fulfill our vision of a new era for commercial space,” said Sierra Space CEO Tom Vice.
Sierra Space is backing Orbital Reef along with Redwire Space and other space-industry leaders and teammates including Boeing, as well as a higher-education advisory consortium. Sierra Space in April announced plans to build a commercial research station in low-Earth orbit before 2028, the scheduled final year of operation for the ISS. The new Orbital Reef collaboration is slated to be up and running sometime between 2025 and 2030.
Beyond Orbital Reef, companies are already building the infrastructure the “Space as a Service” ecosystem will need. BizWest Media noted that a number of these companies have ties to the Boulder, Colorado area.
In June, Sierra Space announced that it will supply the propulsion components and integration services for a nuclear thermal propulsion system under a contract with General Atomics Electromagnetic Systems. The companies will develop and demonstrate the on-orbit propulsion system for a DARPA program called Demonstration Rocket for Agile Cislunar Operations (DRACO). The primary mission of DRACO is to enable fast transit time between Earth and the moon, but it also could speed trips to the ISS, low-Earth-orbit facilities and, eventually, distant planets.
Westminster-based Maxar Technologies Inc., which has a facility in Longmont, last year was awarded a $142 million contract from NASA to develop a robotic construction tool that would be assembled in space for use on low-Earth-orbit spacecraft — something that private-sector spacecraft are likely to need as well.
In January, Broomfield, Colorado-based Altius Space Machines Inc., a subsidiary of Voyager Space Holdings Inc., launched its DogTags universal grapple fixtures into space aboard OneWeb’s satellites. They’ll make it easier to grab nonfunctioning satellites and tug functional ones into new orbits.
Altius got a boost from Small Business Innovation Research grants, as did startup Blue Canyon Technologies (BCT), now with about 400 employees and facilities in Lafayette and Boulder. Among Blue Canyon’s products are “cubesats” and components and bodies for satellites so small they can be held in the hand. Its satellites hold as little as 3 kilograms of payload to as much as 200 kilograms. “There’s quite a bit of diversity in our product line,” Duncan said.
Founded in 2008 by former employees of Boulder-based Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp., Blue Canyon was acquired in 2020 by Waltham, Mass.-based Raytheon Technologies, one of the nation’s largest defense contractors. Blue Canyon launched its first satellite in 2016 and now has about 30 satellites orbiting Earth with another that’s gone to Mars. In February, it announced it would develop an additional six satellites for DARPA’s Blackjack program. In 2019, it won a $4.9 million contract from NASA to develop technology that allows Blue Canyon’s spacecraft to perform autonomous onboard navigation without additional hardware.
Next on its agenda, Duncan said, is an “ESPA Grande,” which he described as the largest of traditional “ride-share” rocket. “It has multiple ports on the rocket to support launching multiple satellites,” he said “One might be from Blue Canyon, and next to it might be one from SpaceX.”
A Blue Canyon Saturn-class bus might carry both the Defense Department’s Blackjack satellite and a methane-measuring satellite from the Environmental Defense Fund, Duncan said.
“From the beginning, BCT has been a commercial provider and has really looked to be a supporter of the new space paradigm,” he said. That’s exactly what BCT’s been doing since our inception. High performance and low cost are our tenets.”
Meanwhile, Ball Aerospace this year won a $75 million NASA contract to build a satellite called GLIDE — the Global Lyman-alpha Imager of the Dynamic Exosphere — to study the highest reaches of Earth’s atmosphere. It’s also been working with the Air Force Research Laboratory’s Space Vehicles Directorate on a concept called HOPE, a Heterogeneous On-orbit Processing Engine.
After Redwire acquired Longmont, Colorado-based aerospace technology and small-satellite maker Roccor last fall, it also grabbed Littleton’s Deep Space Systems Inc., Boston-area firm Adcole Space LLC and Florida-based Made In Space Inc.
“They’re very much looking to roll up high-growth, niche companies in the new space economy,” Roccor chief executive Chris Pearson told BizWest. “Once we saw the plan and the degree of synergy with the other companies, it was a good long-term opportunity for us."
Roth hailed Orbital Reef as a key step forward in the business plan.
“The whole Orbital Reef team is setting up our mixed-use business park as a ‘Space as a Service’ model,” he said. “The ‘Space as a Service’ business approach is a way to open up space for more businesses and people. We provide the infrastructure, transportation and access, and then different tenants and participants can take part. This is far more cost-effective for everyone and allows for more people to access space.”
Read the original BizWest Media article here: https://www.dailycamera.com/2021/11/01/boulder-area-companies-embrace-ne...