DoD moves beyond technology demonstrations, utilizing ISAM to advance ongoing mission objectives

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In-Space Servicing Assembly and Manufacturing (ISAM) technologies have been in development since the early 2000’s. But so far, every mission involving these technologies has been a demonstration without an immediate impact to ongoing government operations.

That’s about to change as the Space Force’s National Space Test and Training Complex (NSTTC) prepares for a planned mission in 2025, partnering with private companies, Katalyst Space Technologies and Motiv Space Systems, along with government entities, Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and the US Naval Research Laboratory (NRL).

“Operators don’t have an ISAM mission or an ISAM business,” explains Ghonhee Lee, CEO of Katalyst Space Technologies. “We need to move beyond technology development and demonstration. Customers need to see how they can leverage these capabilities in a clear way that adds real value to their missions.”

Unlike prior technology demonstrations, the 2025 mission made possible by funding through the Pentagon’s Test Resource Management Center (TRMC), will solve an immediate mission need for Space Delta 11.

Delta 11, activated in August 2021, focuses on “a mission to provide realistic, threat-informed test and training environments” according to the Space Force website. As part of that mission, Delta 11 is developing a training range in space to test and hone satellite maneuvers.

Existing satellites were made available from other government agencies to support the mission. However, many of these satellites lack the advanced sensing capabilities required to characterize and understand satellite maneuvers.

As a result, Delta 11 relies largely on ground-based sensing. In fact, most operators running similar or related missions rely on ground-based sensing. With optical sensors stationed 35,000 kilometers away, resolution is a major issue. From that distance, two different satellites can appear as one pixel, a phenomenon known as centroid merge. It became clear that in order to thoroughly test new maneuvers, Delta 11 needed additional sensors at different vantage points, including sensors in space.

“We need exceptional space-based sensors to provide and operate a safe, secure, operationally-representative live on-orbit environment,” says Major Westcott, Director of Operations, 98th Space Range Squadron. “Upgrading the spacecraft that we already have is a new capability that gives us flexibility to meet our mission needs on timelines that are relevant.”

Unfortunately, access to new technology, including space domain awareness (SDA) sensors, is severely limited for satellites already in space. Operators are often forced to launch new satellites, equipped with the right capabilities. However, given that design and development cycles for satellites can be decades long, this leaves a capabilities gap for 5-10+ years.

“When operators are forced to launch new satellites to gain access to new technology, it slows technology adoption down. It’s usually a case of making a billion-dollar decision or doing nothing,” explains Lee.

Fortunately, officials at TRMC recognized this challenge as the perfect application for ISAM technology, specifically DARPA’s Robotic Servicing of Geosynchronous Satellites (RSGS) program.

According to Erin Eales, USSF NSTTC Infrastructure Division Chief and USSF TRMC Service Representative, “The Test Resource Management Center focuses on funding cutting-edge projects that enhance the testing capabilities of the US military. It’s exciting to see new technologies being deployed to solve a practical mission need for the National Space Test and Training Complex. We’re thrilled to be moving forward with the next phase of this work.”

Katalyst Space Technologies will join the mission to provide the payload, a space domain awareness upgrade called SIGHT. The SIGHT upgrade features high performance optics that provide real-time local awareness near satellites. Images, astrometric, and photometric data can be used to identify orbital hazards and characterize maneuvers.

Retrofitting Delta 11’s existing satellites is made possible by Katalyst's retrofit attachment system, which allows even unprepared satellites to become a platform for upgrades. The mechanical system allows a new payload to be installed via the satellite’s pre-existing launch adapter ring. Most satellites in space–and almost all in geosynchronous orbit–have these rings, which were originally used to interface with a rocket during launch. The 2025 mission will be the first attempt to install a new payload to a satellite by attaching to the launch adapter ring.

In preparation for the planned mission in 2025, the Defense Innovation Unit (DIU) executed a contract modification under their Modularity for Space Systems (M4SS) project in January 2024. The contract provides funding for a joint effort by Motiv Space Systems and Katalyst Space Technologies. Motiv is already a key partner in the DIU’s M4SS program. This project between Katalyst and Motiv will enable three key activities to commence immediately, supporting the mission for NSTTC:

Katalyst Space Technologies will build a version of the SIGHT space domain awareness upgrade called an engineering development unit (EDU)

Engineers at the Naval Research Laboratory will conduct testing on the EDU to confirm that the SIGHT upgrade can be installed via RSGS robotic arms

Katalyst Space Technologies will flight qualify their retrofit attachment system

The success of this mission will open doors to more innovation within the government and the private sector. For the first time, ISAM will be used to upgrade a satellite in geosynchronous orbit, solving an immediate need for the US military.

This could pave the way for upgrades to be deployed more broadly, allowing satellite operators to access new capabilities without having to launch new satellites. This is great news for government and commercial leadership looking to quickly deploy new technology in space, including Space Force Delta 2, which leads the operational Space Domain Awareness mission.

As space becomes more congested and contested, real time awareness of objects and adversaries has never been more important. However, most existing satellites are not equipped with advanced sensors. Satellites that lack their own SDA capabilities must rely on other satellites, which relocate – often from very far away – to characterize an event after it has happened. This reactive approach means that operators can be left waiting days for critical intelligence.

By upgrading satellites in space using ISAM, Katalyst Space Technologies, Motiv Space Systems, and other private companies can help the government eliminate gaps in SDA coverage. With SDA sensors on more satellites, operators can rely on persistent sensing for everyday surveillance, while selectively tasking out movable assets.

"Katalyst's retrofittable approach enables augmenting existing satellite assets with SDA mission capability, opening previously unavailable viewing perspectives,” explained Colonel Meredith Beg in a May 2023 Memorandum. “As the broader mission set of the United States Space Force evolves to include more orbital warfare elements, such understanding provided by SIGHT can be used to understand the performance of new orbital warfare tactics, techniques, and technologies through additional real-time mission feedback.”

Eventually, Katalyst will engage commercial satellite operators in the SDA ecosystem as well. By upgrading commercial satellites with SDA sensors, commercial operators can create new revenue streams by selling SDA data to the government. This creates a more robust SDA network, increasing resiliency and reducing risk.

The January 2024 contract award represents a significant step forward towards the practical application of ISAM for the US military. The effort to upgrade satellites in space has been in development since 2021 under the AFWERX SBIR program and TACFI.