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Autonomous Tech Will Transform What We Can Do in Space

As companies like SpaceX and Amazon launch more satellites, space will become incredibly crowded. Autonomous technology will be key to managing all the new traffic off Earth's surface — and more.

Satellite in space
Many officials believe that autonomous technology can transform transportation in local areas and states. Less discussed, however, is the potential for autonomous tech to revolutionize what the United States can achieve in space. 

The 2020 Hyperspace Challenge, a business-accelerator program from the U.S. Space Force and Air Force Research Lab, is just one example of a “big-idea pipeline” for autonomous space solutions, said Col. Eric Felt, director of the Air Force Research Laboratory Space Vehicles Directorate. 

The program has selected 11 private companies and two universities to develop “technology that can provide government space agencies with secure, trustworthy, autonomous and automated solutions for both manned and unmanned space missions.”

Autonomous technology in space is desired for multiple reasons, the first of which involves the sheer number of satellites that will soon be in orbit. Currently, satellites rely on a lot of manual processes on the ground for maneuvering, said Gabe Mounce, director of the Space Force Accelerator program. Once space becomes especially congested, it’s going to be harder for operators on the ground to keep up with everything in an efficient manner.

“We are going to have hundreds, if not thousands, of satellites flying instead of dozens,” Felt said. “Autonomy will be key.”

Felt added that communication from units on the ground to satellites in space will become too delayed as the distance between the planet and satellites increases. 

“We are moving further and further away from the earth in terms of where we need to provide space domain awareness … The whole point is when you are further away from the earth, it takes longer and longer to do everything from the ground,” Felt said. 

Another concern is threats to activities on earth that rely on satellites. GPS, weather forecasting and missile warning systems are just a few things that are tied to space tech. The federal government doesn’t want to wait for humans on the ground to respond to potential active threats in space. 

“If those space services were interrupted from natural or adversary action, there would be a big impact on peoples’ everyday lives,” Felt said. “If we were in a conflict with a China or a Russia, they know if they were ever able to deny us our space capabilities, that would put them at an advantage.”

Mounce said there’s a reason the government is just now exploring the idea of baking autonomous algorithms into satellites. In the past, the proposition was too risky. Traditionally, satellites are expensive, and if a machine were to make the wrong decision, so to speak, it could malfunction and be lost forever. 

“You can’t go up there and repair it,” Mounce said. “It’s almost impossible to correct.”

Daniel Faber is CEO of Orbit Fab, which holds the distinction of being the first private company to supply the International Space Station with water. Faber confirmed that when something goes wrong with a machine in space, the technology is typically abandoned. That’s why a space “tow truck” industry is developing. Autonomous tech could enable spacecraft to dock to broken satellites and fix the units or remove them if they can’t be repaired.  

Of course, fuel becomes an issue when mobility is involved. Orbit Fab is working on what it calls “gas stations in space.” Faber said refueling, which requires a level of autonomy, has crucial implications for more advanced activities in space, not to mention national defense. 

“Mobility is pretty important,” Faber said. “If you want to do interesting things, and if you want the element of surprise [in a defense situation], you have to be able to move.”

Both Felt and Faber believe space will look dramatically different in five to 10 years. Faber thinks private space tourism will drive a lot of new ventures. But the real change may come when a company decides that it needs someone to take a permanent job in space. 

“The first full-time job in orbit is going to be an utter paradigm shift, and from there a whole slew of businesses are going to arrive,” Faber said. 

This type of potential illustrates why the federal government considers initiatives like the Hyperspace Challenge so critical. The U.S. wants to have strong connections with industry so that it’s not left behind when space innovation takes place.  

“My challenge is to figure out how to work with these very fast-moving and very exciting commercial ventures that are going on — to make sure we can partner with them in a way that can be useful to our missions as well, so that we don’t have to reinvent the wheel,” Felt said. 

Mounce added that certain advancements will be hard to foresee until autonomous space tech is ready for prime time. 

“Who knows what you might discover when you get these things more autonomous?” Mounce said.


Jed Pressgrove has been a writer and editor for about 15 years. He received a bachelor’s degree in journalism and a master’s degree in sociology from Mississippi State University.