The Quest for Reusability

By Antoine Favre-Felix

Recently, the concept of reusability has gained more and more importance in different industries and sectors, but what is going on in the space industry?

The space industry has been growing very fast over the past few years. Since the early years of 2000, a revolution in the Small Satellite and launch vehicle industry has been witnessed. Smallsat scales are brought down in terms of size, mass, and cost. Miniaturization has overcome constraints in the past that required satellites to be massive, and launch vehicles are required to serve these smallsats’ needs. In fact, thousands of smallsats will be deployed in constellations in the coming decade, which drives the demand for new types of space systems and technology, and especially launch vehicles,

Launch providers strive to find innovative solutions to meet the demand and needs of a rising number of smallsat operators. Reusable systems have been increasingly part of their R&D strategies. For instance, in late 2015, SpaceX’s Falcon 9 was the first orbital-class partially reusable two-stage rocket ever launched. The company proved to the world its ability to reuse the first stage of a rocket, which softly landed on earth and lifted off again over a year later. Not only does it allow to reduce the cost for SpaceX, but it directly benefits smallsat operators by making access to space more affordable. SpaceX has become one of the most innovative firms by demonstrating exceptional capabilities and great innovations.

However, does the idea of reusability only apply to launch vehicles? In fact, this is one of the concepts that Lúnasa Space is striving to bring to life through an orbital transfer vehicle, called VIA, that will stay in orbit throughout its lifetime during which it will perform many missions. To do so, it is designed to perform automated rendezvous and docking with the payload stage called the “Shuttle” on-orbit, initiate the mission, and detach from the Shuttle once the mission is completed. Such a reusable system brings several advantages.

Like other reusable systems, it enables to extend the lifetime of the main part of the vehicle and subsystems. Usually, a lot of high-tech components are not used at their full capacity, which creates lots of waste. Most of these subsystems will be built in the reusable part of VIA, making in-space operations more sustainable.

Additionally, those subsystems are expensive, and it is easily understandable that significant direct costs are saved by reusing them through many missions. Moreover, because the orbital transfer vehicle will not have to be developed from scratch for every mission, development time and costs are reduced. Besides research, engineering, or design, testing prototypes is also costly and time-consuming. Ultimately, these reductions necessarily benefit directly small satellite operators, which will see launch prices going further down. It will consequently offer them the opportunity to access space more frequently. It will encourage them to keep developing technologies and deploy smallsats into space, to benefit the whole SpaceTech ecosystem, which spread over the whole society in the end!

Launch cost has always been the primary constraint in the space business. If access to space weren’t so expensive we’d have an astounding amount of entrepreneurial activity in Low Earth Orbit (LEO) and beyond. Space tourism, materials development, pharmaceutical research, power generation, communications, earth imaging and national security all have “killer apps” just waiting for reliable and affordable access to space

Greg Autry, Vice President of the National Space Society.

Up to now, only partially reusable systems have been officially launched and will keep being developed and improved. However, it is not the end of the tunnel. Actually, full reusability is another step to overcome and has already started to be addressed. In fact, SpaceX is currently developing a fully reusable transportation system called Starship and has already successfully completed several flight tests. Like other companies, Relativity Space is also surfing this very new wave with their rocket Terran R, expected to be launched in 2024.

The ultimate goal is to implement the notion of reusability across the whole space industry in many ways, from launch vehicles to every satellite. To achieve so, on-orbit satellite servicing (OSS) is becoming necessary. It includes services such as repairs, refuelling, or inclination changes of satellites already in orbit. Not only does giving satellites multiple lives make space operations more sustainable, but it will help mitigate debris, which has become one of the main challenges and risks associated with more in-space operations. Recently, Northrop Grumman’s Mission Extension Vehicle-1 (MEV-1) turned the OSS concept into a reality. Launched in October 2019, MEV-1 successfully completed in 2020 the first docking mission ever with Intelsat’s IS-901. It was followed by another successful mission in April 2021 (MEV-2). These achievements paved the way for more OSS missions in the coming years.

Space technologies relentlessly evolve, and Lúnasa Space strongly believes that reusability is the future of space operations and will keep being the core of upcoming innovations. The impressive endeavours showcased by some space firms must be inspiring and push SpaceTech companies to keep breaking new grounds.