Steve Butow, Defense Innovation Unit: “We want to make GEO cool again”

WASHINGTON — The Defense Innovation Unit is funding space projects that the agency hopes will spur commercial investment in satellite refueling technologies and support services for geostationary satellites.

“Imagine a world where every 18-24 months you could simply upgrade a satellite’s processor in GEO the same way you upgrade your smartphone to take advantage of new processing power and new features. said Steve “Bucky” Butow, director of the Defense Innovation Unit’s space portfolio.

DIU, based in Silicon Valley, is an agency of the Department of Defense created in 2015 to help integrate privately funded innovation into military programs.

Since its inception, much of DIU’s space portfolio has focused on low-Earth-orbit capabilities, but the agency is now looking more to the GEO belt, 22,000 miles above the equator, where operate many of the Army’s key satellites.

In recent years, “the DoD has kind of woken up to the power of low Earth orbit…and now we want to make GEO cool again,” Butow said last month at an online event. of the National Security Space Association.

DIU is particularly interested in the logistics, manufacturing and maintenance of satellites in space. Butow said the plan is to team up with private companies and fund prototype systems that could then be commercialized. Another benefit for the DoD is that having a more robust infrastructure in GEO would help support operations beyond Earth orbit into cislunar space.

“If we can deliver new transformative capabilities to the GEO belt, the cislunar realm is also literally open for business,” Butow said. These technologies, he said, would also support NASA’s space exploration efforts.

A DIU spokesperson said the agency could not disclose the amount of funds allocated to GEO space infrastructure projects. The agency has a small budget but gets programs funded by partnering with larger DoD agencies such as Space Systems Command and the Air Force Research Laboratory. Private companies that work with DIU must also agree to partially fund projects.

In-space satellite refueling and robotic maintenance vehicles are two areas where the DoD should increase investment, said Space Force Maj. David Ryne, IUD program manager. SpaceNews.

DIU is reviewing bids for a multi-orbit in-orbit refueling demonstration project. The program is known as RAPID, which stands for easily accessible thruster in various orbits.

Another program is called Modularity for space systems, or M4SS. In March, DIU selected three companies – Motiv Space Systems, Maxar Technologies and Tethers Unlimited – to prototype robotic arms and other modular systems that can be attached to GEO-powered maintenance vehicles. The companies must deliver prototypes in 2024. The value of their contracts was not disclosed.

These robotic arms, Ryne said, will “capture, attach to other vehicles, provide upgrades or services.”

DIU asked the three companies to design systems that could be marketed rather than following military specifications. The idea is to keep costs as low as possible and help companies sell their services to a wide range of customers, Ryne said.

If these prototypes are successful, DoD organizations are expected to provide long-term funding. The DoD’s financial support for satellite refueling and maintenance is important because it sends a signal to the commercial market that if companies invest in these technologies, the military will be a customer, Ryne said. “The industry wants to know that it won’t put an expensive satellite into austere orbit and be scrapped because there’s no infrastructure to support it.”

“DIU is kind of representing the government when we invest in these projects like robotic arms and interfaces to provide power, data and of course supplies,” Ryne said.

“We’re kind of at a tipping point,” he said. The commercial industry is ready to move forward but needs the government to “provide these demand indicators, establish this framework, provide some infrastructure to demonstrate that there will be a market”.

The government doesn’t plan to be the primary customer “but it will probably be one of the biggest users of these technologies, especially in GEO,” Ryne said.