NASA cancels a multi-billion dollar satellite servicing test mission

Zoom in / Artist's illustration of the OSAM-1 spacecraft (bottom) attached to the Landsat 7 satellite (top) in orbit.


NASA canceled an over-budget and behind-schedule mission to demonstrate automated satellite servicing technology in orbit, halting a project that cost $1.5 billion and probably would have cost nearly $1 billion more to get to the launch pad.

The On-Orbit Service, Assembly and Manufacturing 1 mission, known as OSAM-1, would have encountered an old Landsat satellite in orbit and attempted to refuel it, while also demonstrating how a robotic arm could build an antenna in space. The spacecraft for the OSAM-1 mission was partially built, but NASA announced Friday that officials decided to cancel the project “after an in-depth, independent review of the project.”

The space agency cited “ongoing technical, cost and schedule challenges” for the decision to cancel OSAM-1.

Mission creep

The cost of the mission has ballooned since NASA officially launched the project in 2016. The original scope of the mission called only for a refueling demonstration, but in 2020, officials focused on the goal of on-orbit assembly. This involved adding a complex piece of equipment called the Space Infrastructure Dexterous Robot (SPIDER)—essentially a 16-foot (5-meter) robotic arm—to assemble seven structural elements into a single Ka-band communications antenna.

The addition of SPYDER means the mission will launch with three robotic arms, including two attachments needed to hold the Landsat 7 satellite in orbit for a refueling demonstration. With this change in scope, the mission name changed from Restore-L to OSAM-1.

a A NASA Inspector General report last year Outline task delays and cost overruns. Since 2016, the space agency has asked Congress for $808 million to purchase Restore-L and OSAM-1. Lawmakers responded by giving NASA nearly $1.5 billion to fund mission development, nearly double what NASA said it wanted.

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Restore-L, and subsequently OSAM-1, has always had congressional support. The mission was managed by NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland. Former Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) was a major supporter of NASA missions launched from Goddard, including the James Webb Space Telescope. She was the top Democrat on the Senate Appropriations Committee when Congress began funding Restore-L in late 2015.

At one point, NASA predicted that the Restore-L mission would cost between $626 million and $753 million and could be ready for launch in the second half of 2020. But that did not happen, and the mission continues to face delays and cost increases. The latest public schedule for OSAM-1 showed a launch date in 2026.

In 2020, after the Restore-L mission was reconfigured as OSAM-1, NASA officially established a budget for the renamed mission. At the time, NASA said it would cost $1.78 billion to design, build, launch and operate. An independent review panel created by NASA last year to examine the OSAM-1 mission estimated that the total project could cost up to $2.35 billion, according to Jimmy Russell, a NASA spokesman.

The realities of the satellite servicing market have also changed since 2016. There are many companies working on commercial satellite servicing technologies, and the satellite industry has shifted away from refueling unpowered spacecraft, as OSAM-1 would have demonstrated with its lunar Earth imaging. Landsat 7. Satellites.

Instead, companies are focusing more on extending the life of satellites in other ways. Northrop Grumman has developed the Mission Extension Vehicle, which can attach to a satellite and provide maneuverability without cutting off the customer spacecraft for fueling. Other companies are looking at satellites designed from the start with refueling ports. The US military has a desire to place fuel depots and tankers in orbit to regularly service its satellites, giving them the ability to constantly maneuver and burn propellant without worrying about running out of fuel.

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