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In-Orbit Servicing Regulations Must Balance Innovation and Risk

The primary function of on-orbit servicing regulations should be to enable the growth and expansion of the business rather than restrict it, said a panel of experts during a Wednesday afternoon panel at the SATELLITE 2018 Conference & Exhibition. During a discussion on the policy challenges facing this new market, the speakers emphasized the commercial risks of the United Sates losing its lead in developing on-orbit servicing technology.

Multiple companies, militaries and government organizations are exploring the potential benefits of on-orbit rendezvous and proximity operations. But in the U.S., there remains a dearth of standards to guide the path forward, even as the technology’s commercial viability becomes more evident and attractive. Because the capability is still so new, there is no government agency currently tasked with regulating it.

The U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) monitors spectrum, while the Federal Aviation Association (FAA) keeps an eye on launch. But on-orbit servicing remains in limbo. The National Space Council recently recommended the Department of Commerce to be the regulatory authority for all space activities excluding launch, reentry and spectrum, but as it stands, legislation has not kept pace with the technology or companies’ business timelines.

According to Tahara Dawkins, director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Commercial Remote Sensing Regulatory Affairs Office, five U.S. companies have already secured licenses to pursue on-orbit servicing, including Orbital ATK and SSL. That number will only increase now that the business case is more realistic, and international players will be soon to follow. Dawkins warned there could be significant ramifications if the regulatory environment in the U.S. is not conducive to these companies’ plans. “If we restrict this industry to a place where they’re not commercially viable, then this gets driven overseas,” she said.

Dawkins pointed out that the U.S. has made this mistake before. In the 1990s, U.S. companies saw a lucrative opportunity in offering Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) services. But a messy, undefined regulatory environment eventually pushed those investments to other, better-equipped regions. To this day, the U.S. lags behind countries like Canada in the SAR market.

“If our government is not taking leadership in this, others will, and the consequences of that are much more dire than any technical risk I see,” said Al Tadros, SSL’s vice president of space infrastructure and civil space.

But although the industry is quite excited about the potential profitability of on-orbit servicing, Lisa Kuo, director of commercial programs at the Aerospace Corporation, warned that overly loose regulations could be equally risky. “Everybody at the beginning is going to be doing [on-orbit servicing] in a very different fashion. So should we just let everybody do their own thing and not regulate them? I don’t think so,” she said. “When on-orbit servicing is in its infancy, we need to set clear guidelines and policies … until it’s at a point where everything is a lot more standardized.”

Vice President of SES Government Solutions Tim Deaver said that proper regulations also come with financial benefits as well. A solid regulatory framework reduces the overall risk profile, making the business case more attractive for potential investors, he explained.

Kuo cautioned regulators to take a big-picture approach when drafting new legislation for the market. While initial projects such as Orbital ATK’s Mission Extension Vehicle (MEV) will focus largely on refueling missions, additional capabilities are expected to soon emerge. “When we’re thinking about on-orbit servicing we shouldn’t limit ourselves to just extending life. It’s ultimately one step toward manufacturing and integrating stuff in space,” she said. “We don’t want a set of regulations and policies that only apply to fueling services” when the ultimate goal is payload augmentation and other rendezvous operations. The true “holy grail” — although it may be decades away — is on-orbit robotic assembly, Kuo said.

As an example, Deavers pointed to SES’ interest in hosted payloads. In January, NASA launched its Global-scale Observations of the Limb and Disk (GOLD) mission, attaching a scientific payload to a commercial satellite for the first time in history. One of the challenges he identified was lining up NASA’s timeline, the company’s own schedule and the limited launch window. In the future, Deavers predicts a more flexible scenario in which hosted payloads can be bolted onto a spacecraft already in orbit.

“Servicing is going to be quite varied,” Tadros said. “One of our programs, Robotic Servicing of Geosynchronous Satellites (RSGS), is designed to have multifunctional robotic arms that can bring up new tools and equipment and conduct servicing that was not envisioned when we launched it originally.”

Because these companies are already thinking about next-generation capabilities, Dawkins highlighted the importance of including them in the regulatory conversation. NOAA’s priority is to avoid a repeat of the missteps with SAR; as such, regulatory agencies must remain informed about the direction the market will likely head next. At the same time, it’s important for companies to understand how NOAA (and soon, the Department of Commerce) plans to regulate their businesses. “If any of this is a non-starter and kills your business, let me know that now,” she said. VS