The US Space Force has chosen three startups specializing in satellite propulsion for its latest Hyperspace Challenge. This selection reflects the military’s growing interest in agile satellites that can outmaneuver adversaries. Traditionally, satellites have been launched into orbit with restricted movements to conserve fuel. However, with rivals now deploying maneuverable spacecraft, the US is calling for a shift to “dynamic space operations” enabled by autonomous refueling and other in-orbit services.
The Pentagon sees the ability to refuel satellites as opening new possibilities in space. Autonomous refueling and maneuvering capabilities would give the military options to better defend its assets. Currently, the US is at a disadvantage as adversaries have satellites that can maneuver and rendezvous with other objects. Therefore, mobility and logistics have become a crucial focus area for combatant commanders.
The Space Systems Command’s program executive officer for assured access to space states that operationalizing these capabilities is essential for dynamic space operations. To support this, a new office has been established at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, Florida, focused on space mobility and logistics programs. They have partnered with the commercial firm Astroscale to develop an on-orbit refueling vehicle. The Space Force is also funding in-orbit refueling experiments with the aim to launch them by 2025.
The Hyperspace Challenge, co-sponsored by the Space Rapid Capabilities Office, aims to gain insight into commercial technologies for dynamic space operations. Three of the selected startups in the challenge are advancing propulsion systems for small spacecraft.
However, the article points out that it remains unclear whether the Space Force has a strategy to transition emerging satellite-servicing technologies into procurement programs and establish a sustainable space infrastructure. The military’s enthusiasm for in-space logistics could drive technological developments, but it will require a shift in procurement pathways to provide opportunities for non-established defense contractors and allow new entrants to prove themselves and improve their products.
In conclusion, the US Space Force’s selection of startups specializing in satellite propulsion for the Hyperspace Challenge reflects the military’s interest in agile satellites. Autonomous refueling and maneuvering capabilities are seen as crucial to enabling dynamic space operations and better defending assets in space. However, a strategic plan and more opportunities are needed to transition emerging technologies into procurement programs and establish a sustainable space infrastructure.