In-space manufacturing startup Orbital Composites wins $1.7M contract to develop ISAM antennas

In-space manufacturing deep-tech startup Orbital Composites (Orbital) has been awarded a U.S. Space Force SpaceWERX Orbital Prime Direct-to-Phase-II Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) contract worth $1.7 million.

The award is focused on advancing the development of In-space Servicing, Assembly, and Manufacturing (ISAM) antennas. This contract was funded by Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL). Collaborating with notable industry players such as Axiom Space, Northrop Grumman, and Southwest Research Institute (SwRI), Orbital Composites aims to bring significant changes to Satellite-Based Cellular Broadband (SBCB) and Space-Based Solar Power (SBSP) applications. The goal is to facilitate universal access to broadband internet and clean energy worldwide, encouraging space technology advancements. Orbital is also planning to launch its first Space Factory module within three to five years. Additionally, Orbital also signed an MoU with Virtus Solis to build the first MW-scale SBSP station, representing significant progress in SBSP technology.

“This prestigious SBIR award, coupled with our partnerships with Axiom Space, Northrop Grumman, and SwRI, marks a crucial juncture in our journey,” said Cole Nielsen, Founder and CTO of Orbital. “Our Space Factories will leverage advanced robotics and autonomous systems to build high-performance antennas in space, reducing the cost by >100X.”

3D printing in space. Image via Orbital Composites.
3D printing in space. Image via Orbital Composites.

ISAM: The future of space infrastructure

The demand for large antennas is critical for SBCB, while SBSP necessitates significantly large antennas on a kilometer scale. To meet the requirements of both applications, high-volume and low-cost manufacturing processes, and ISAM capabilities, are essential. Manufacturing and assembling antennas directly in space has the potential to substantially decrease deployment costs and create new commercial opportunities. 

Orbital Composites highlights the significance of its strategic partnership with Axiom Space, a leading contender in building commercial space stations in Low Earth Orbit (LEO). Both companies are exploring the potential of establishing an orbital ISAM “laboratory” on Axiom Station, the world’s first commercial space station in LEO. With Axiom Space’s vested interest in ISAM, this alliance aims to investigate its applications, including antennas and components for future space stations.  

Furthermore, Orbital says it is expanding plans beyond LEO and already gearing up to develop ISAM capabilities in Geostationary Orbit (GEO). Leading the way in in-space servicing of GEO satellites is Space Logistics, a subsidiary of Northrop Grumman. Its fleet of commercial servicing vehicles includes the Mission Extension Vehicle (“MEV”), the Mission Robotic Vehicle (“MRV”), and the Mission Extension Pod (“MEP”). Leveraging its expertise, Space Logistics will team up with Orbital to enhance and refine the Antenna Space Factory for GEO applications.

“ISAM is incredibly important for the development and utilization of space,” says Branson Brockschmidt, Senior Robotics Research Engineer at SwRI. “In partnering with Orbital Composites on this SpaceWERX Orbital Prime SBIR, we intend to design and test systems in vacuum and thermal conditions to advance robotic ISAM.”

Orbital Composites company logo. Image via Orbital Composites.
Orbital Composites company logo. Image via Orbital Composites.

3D printing makes space exploration more affordable and accessible

The Portland State Aerospace Society (PSAS) successfully launched OreSat0, a CubeSat system, into LEO. CRP Technology‘s Windform LX 3.0 composite material and industrial 3D printing technology played a crucial role in manufacturing the satellite’s essential subsystems, such as the reliable deployer for the tri-band turnstile antenna, the star tracker lens and sensor assembly, and a compact battery pack. PSAS employed a cost-effective approach by utilizing low-cost Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM) for prototyping and later transitioned to Selective Laser Sintering (SLS) with Windform LX 3.0 for the final production. The organization’s accomplished missions, OreSat0.5 in October 2023, and OreSat1’s deployment from the International Space Station (ISS) early next year.

3D printer OEM 3D Systems and Australian satellite developer Fleet Space joined forces to develop 3D printed radio frequency (RF) patch antennas for Fleet Space’s Alpha satellites. Support provided by 3D Systems’ Application Innovation Group (AIG), played a crucial role in facilitating the smooth transition of Fleet Space’s design to small-batch production. The metal printer, DMP Flex 350, was utilized during this three-week process. Fleet Space also had plans to procure a DMP Flex 350 3D printer for its Beverley, Adelaide headquarters, allowing it to conduct in-house patch antenna manufacturing.

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Featured image shows 3D printing in space. Image via Orbital Composites.