How long will we be building space systems that are (a) way bigger than they need to be and (b) completely customized for a single purpose? For comparison, we are still operating on the mainframe computer model, where computers ‘had’ to be the size of rooms. That didn’t last for computers, and it is just a matter of time before we transition to the desktop computer model of being able to just plug and play with dozens of different modules. One company is working on just that future…let’s see what Deb is doing before we get there though.
The Fun Part
July 4, 2031
Geostationary Orbit somewhere over the Middle East
I suppose I should be grateful….at least I have a job with a great view” Deb thought as she clipped into the school-bus sized Defense Department satellite. It wasn’t like she disliked being on the Space Force repair detail this quarter. In fact, this was one of the better temporary duties she had been on since joining the military eight years ago.
The thing was, there was no reason for her to be here. Oh sure, the Space Force’s newest communication satellite was definitely broken, and it definitely needed to be repaired. But SHE didn’t need to be repairing it. There was no reason…well…ok maybe there were reasons…but not good ones…why satellites needed to be uber-specialized multi-billion dollar systems. Not anymore.
That would be like telling an iPad user that it made more sense for them to buy a house-sized mainframe for their next computer. Nothing else in life was so specialized that only a small handful were ever made. Especially not systems that cost billions of dollars and essentially did one job.
Take this communication satellite, she thought, it basically just took a signal from either the ground or another satellite, and rebroadcast it the opposite direction. Oh sure there was a little more than that…but why was it so big?
“More to the point…why was it so hard to fix anything in here” Deb thought as she opened up the first external panel. Today’s spacewalk was scheduled to last 4 hours, and there were five more planned as backups in case she didn’t fix the problem right now. If she was honest with herself it was going to take at least two of those backups, because she was going to be lucky to just finished examining the receiver here before she needed to head back.
As she worked, Deb started reminiscing about the article she wrote for her school newspaper on the self assembling, modular space station that had been launched when she was a senior nearly 9 years ago. That was the sort of systems she thought she would be working with when she joined Space Force…but alas…it looked like at least the next generation of military satellites were going to be these monstrosities. Not at all like the modular, upgradeable systems that most companies were starting to use.
Surely now that we can manufacture systems up here in orbit there isn’t a need for systems that have to survive the trip into orbit…Oh well…at least there was a good view from up here…there were worse places to work.
The Real Deal
Last week I interviewed the CEO of Tether’s Unlimited Inc (TUI), Dr. Robert Hoyt. On top of him being a good enough person to actually take my call – he seems to be one of the few people who is more optimistic about the future of space than I am. We’ll get into more about that in this post and the next couple, but suffice to say, he believes before he retires there will be a self-sustaining economy in space.
Self Assembling Stations?
So what Deb was talking about in our story? A self assembling, modular space station seems a tad like the sci-fi of the 1960s; but Dr Hoyt is confident his company will be able to test just that concept in the near future. He talked to me about TUI’s Constructable™ Platform concept which is part of a DARPA project on which TUI and Space Systems Loral (SSL) are collaborating.
TUI’s Constructable™ Platform is simultaneously as simple as it sounds, and really really hard. The general plan is to stitch together Microsat-sized (or smaller) modules into a larger structure that shares power, communications, stationkeeping, and other key services. While the DARPA project is no doubt focused on traditional security missions; the platform would have the ability to grow far beyond whatever its original mandate was.
Once in orbit (which Dr Hoyt believed could happen by the middle of the 2020s); the Constructable™ Platform would function as a sort of Lego style base for ‘tenants’ to build off of. So long as a company’s module was compatible with TUI’s platform, it could be integrated, giving companies, universities and countries the inexpensive option of slowly upgrading their in-orbit infrastructure without wasting resources.
The Constructable™ Platform is just one of the on-orbit manufacturing concepts that TUI is working on. Another is the “SpiderFab” system (shown here), designed to build multi-kilometer long structures in orbit through what is essentially 3D printing. The initial test of SpiderFab will be to work in tandem with another TUI tool the Trusselator to make long trusses in orbit (similar to the main image for this post). As the truss is built, solar cells (or antenna material, or solar sails) slowly unrolls along the top of the truss (see below).
So Whats The Holdup?
Because I like knowing what is preventing the future from being here now I asked Dr Hoyt how fast he could get the Constructable Platform into orbit assuming money was no object (my actual question was if he got a billion dollars in no strings attached venture capital overnight). He said with that money he is pretty sure they could get a demonstrator platform into GEO in 2-3 years, and have it fully operational within 5.
Ultimately TUI wants to eliminate the man in the loop for all their on-orbit manufacturing systems. Dr Hoyt sees a future where someone on the group just sends a design file to an on orbit system and it is able to build that entirely autonomously. If that isn’t exciting then you need your head checked.
Next time I’ll talk more about the accelerating pace of change in the space industry, and what we can expect in terms of change. Until then, be sure to check out Tether’s promo video, or one of my old posts about orbital manufacturing. If you want us to write about something specific, email us below to let us know what it is. You can also you the form to request a specialized presentation from us for your organization.