In-Space Servicing, Assembly, and Manufacturing (ISAM)

What is in-space servicing, assembly, and manufacturing (ISAM)?

In the context of space, ISAM stands for in-space servicing, assembly, and manufacturing. Since humans first began venturing into space (and up until now), all missions have been coordinated from Earth. However, as we venture farther into space and as an economy begins to emerge in space, we need the capability to perform key operations in space – to extend missions and the viability of equipment. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has identified three key capabilities to unlock this next phase of space exploration:

  • In-Space Servicing - the most mature of the three core capabilities, servicing means upgrading or extending the life of a satellite. This includes installing new capabilities, refueling, and fixing/replacing parts.
  • In-Space Assembly - in order to operate larger structures such as habitats and large telescopes, we need the ability to launch components separately and then gather them together while in space. Today, rockets can only launch objects up to a set volume. In-space assembly reduces this limitation, since projects can be launched in parts. Another benefit of in-space assembly is the ability to replace subsystems if they fail. Knowing that replacement is a possibility, space systems designers can specify more cost effective parts, lowering the overall cost of the system.
  • In-Space Manufacturing - this refers to fabricating parts in space. With in-space manufacturing, projects will require fewer backup components at launch. In addition to mechanical and electrical components, NASA also promotes in-space manufacturing of coatings (sometimes called nanomanufacturing). In fact, some materials are easier to manufacture in microgravity environments (like you’d find in space). Researchers and businesses are already investigating the possibility of manufacturing fiber optic cables and pharmaceuticals in space and returning them to Earth.

What is on-orbit servicing, assembly, and manufacturing (OSAM)?

On-orbit servicing, assembly, and manufacturing (OSAM) is similar to ISAM. It refers to the capability to service satellites, assemble components, and fabricate parts while in orbit. So what is the difference between OSAM and ISAM? “In-space” is a broader term than “on-orbit,” so ISAM includes operations on the surface of the moon. OSAM, meanwhile, excludes them.

Why are governments and businesses investing in ISAM?

Making satellites more economical and sustainable

With in-space servicing, we can extend the life of existing satellites and reduce the need to launch new ones. Space debris is already an issue, which is only getting worse. Similarly, in-space manufacturing can reduce the number of launches from Earth required to sustain missions.

Searching for life in outer space

With in-space assembly, NASA and other organizations have the opportunity to build larger, more powerful telescopes in orbit. By increasing telescope range, we can increase the chances of locating life in outer space. Similarly, with in-space assembly, NASA can deploy technology like starshades - large assemblies that block out light from powerful stars, revealing previously unseen planets.

Manned and unmanned platforms

In-space assembly can make persistent platforms possible. This paves the way for habitats in space. But it also provides an opportunity for unmanned structures to serve as a homebase for technology demonstrations, science missions, and other types of hosted payloads. 

Examples of in-space servicing, assembly, and manufacturing (ISAM)

Early examples of ISAM: The International Space Station & The Hubble Telescope
In-space servicing, assembly, and manufacturing has been around since the 1990’s. In fact, some experts point to the International Space Station as the first example of in-space assembly. The first element of the ISS launched in 1998. Of course, it took a crewed mission to assemble the ISS. Similarly, NASA conducted five successful crewed in-space servicing missions to repair and upgrade the Hubble telescope from 1993 to 2009.

The shift to autonomous ISAM: KIKU-7 and Orbital Express

Today, businesses and governments are developing and demonstrating autonomous ISAM technology. This shift began with KIKU-7, a Japanese satellite launched in 1997 that was the first to be equipped with a robotic arm. The first American-led autonomous ISAM mission was Orbital Express in 2007. With Orbital Express, DARPA and NASA demonstrated autonomous servicing scenarios including refueling and hardware transfers using in-space robotics.

ISAM adoption challenges: OSAM-1 and OSAM-2

Since Orbital Express, autonomous ISAM has not rapidly matured or become mainstream. However, the demand for practical ISAM technology has picked up again in recent years. For example in 2022, the White House published its ISAM Implementation Plan, demonstrating commitment to advancing the technology at the highest levels of government. Prior to that, in 2017, DARPA established The Consortium for Execution of Rendezvous and Servicing Operations (CONFERS) to engage private industry in the development of standards and best practices for ISAM.

Nonetheless, ISAM related missions have faced a string of challenges, especially in late 2023 and 2024. NASA canceled two of its highest profile ISAM missions: OSAM-1 and OSAM-2 due to changing priorities and budget overruns. With OSAM-1, NASA planned to refuel an unprepared satellite. Later, the mission expanded to include in-space assembly and manufacturing activities as well. The project was canceled in early 2024, after over a decade in development. The OSAM-2 contract was awarded in 2019, and the intent of the mission was to demonstrate in-space manufacturing of two structural beams. The project concluded in 2023, before a flight test.

The future of ISAM in 2024 and beyond

In spite of recent challenges, the future for in-space servicing, assembly, and manufacturing remains bright. Space is quickly becoming more congested and contested, and ISAM can help businesses and governments adapt to the rapid pace of change. The Space Force is one key government entity that remains optimistic about ISAM, stating that satellite servicing and in-orbit logistics are becoming “core capabilities.”

The key to unlocking the value of ISAM is shifting beyond technology demonstrations. With decades of R&D invested, customers like the Space Force need to understand how the technology can be used to solve real challenges for today’s missions. To that end, Katalyst is partnering with Motiv Space Systems on a 2025 mission, solving an immediate need for the Space Force:

Space Force Delta 11 is building and operating the National Space Test and Training Complex (NSTTC). To accelerate the mission timeline, they will repurpose satellites that are already in space. Katalyst and Motiv will upgrade those satellites with space domain awareness sensors, so that Delta 11 won’t have to rely exclusively on ground-based data sources 35,000km away. These satellites were not originally designed to be upgraded, but Katalyst has designed a retrofit attachment system that makes it possible. The upgrade will be installed with DARPA’s robotic servicing vehicle (RSGS).

Learn more about this mission here, or subscribe to stay in the loop.

Thank you! We will get back in touch with you within 48 hours.
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.
Table of Contents