The boom of NewSpace and its start-up ecosystem, alongside the evolution of the space market linked to constellations (LEO) and to new destinations (Moon, Mars), question today the traditional space transportation approach based on tailored solutions for each mission.
ESA studies indicate that a cost-effective and performant space transportation system on the 2025-2050 horizon could rely on an optimised fleet of reusable launchers injecting payloads on high parking orbits, combined with a “hub and spoke” space logistics network to reach the final orbits (e.g. constellations phasing, exploration missions…) and provide transportation support for in-orbit servicing.
In this perspective, the development of critical technologies serving such a space logistics ecosystem is considered key to meet the evolution of the institutional and commercial transportation needs in a sustainable, versatile, performant and cost-effective way. At the 2030 horizon, such a European ecosystem shall provide the new transportation services to- and in-space that will be required by the space users markets. This ecosystem shall provide logistics and transportation to, among others, the following use-cases and service providers:
In-orbit servicing: refuelling, maintenance, life-extension, storage, propellant depot;
In-space manufacturing and assembly;
End-of-life management and active debris removal;
In-orbit infrastructures for energy and/or data exchanges;
Return to Earth.
These use-cases require orbital payload transportation in fields as constellation deployment, multiple payloads injection, transfers from/to LEO / MEO / GEO, Lagrange points and Moon / Mars orbits insertions.
This space logistics ecosystem is a system-of-systems supported by a tailored portfolio of interconnected In-Space Transportation Vehicles (ISTVs) based on standardised interfaces. This emerging ecosystem will be implemented in an agile and incremental approach, with each intermediate step providing added value on the institutional and commercial space transportation markets. These ISTV might be among the following non-exhaustive list of in-space building blocks:
- Motorised Dispensers, for last-mile delivery and multiple small-sat dispatch;
- Space tugs, for multiple orbital transfers, with reusability;
- Kick-Stages and transfers vehicles, for heavier payloads and/or complex orbits deployment;
- Any other relevant building blocks.
The ESA Future Space Transportation Systems department (STS-F) aims at enabling the end-to-end in-space transportation services for space logistics ecosystem by bridging the technological gaps and de-risking the required capabilities. To do so, the space logistics roadmap will be articulated through an incremental acquisition of key capabilities (in-space rendezvous, in-orbit refuelling for space transportation…) that are enabling for these ISTVs, ensuring timely unfolding of competitive space transportation services.
Two in-space transportation proof-of-concepts (PoCs) are planned to be implemented by STS-F, to ensure the acquisition of key transport capabilities (notably for rendezvous & capture and cryogenic in-orbit refuelling for space transportation), as a steppingstone for unlocking unbundled space logistics services as:
- Payload/cargo handover between two ISTVs,
- In-orbit refueling between an ISTV tug and a propellant depot,
- In-orbit deployment of new satellites and kits or modules for maintenance & repair, satellite life-extension.
These PoCs will identify and mature the required critical capabilities and culminate at In-Orbit Demonstrations between ISTVs.
The PoC-1 aims at demonstrating the key enabling transport capability of in-orbit rendezvous and docking between two orbital systems, compatible with payload transport and cargo transfer. Its first objective is to define and mature ISTVs enabling capabilities for in-space transportation:
- Mechanical and electrical coupling interfaces (with a potential option on refueling),
- Communication interfaces for cooperative rendezvous and docking,
- Automatic rendezvous and docking GNC between cooperative vehicles.
The first validation of these interfaces and capabilities will be performed on the ground. It will be followed by the in-orbit demonstration of rendezvous and capture between two vehicles, validating in-flight the designed interfaces and the associated enabling capabilities.
Building a European Space Logistics ecosystem requires an inclusive and collaborative approach across Europe, joining European industrial forces to foster interfaces standardization and interoperability between ISTV. Accordingly, the study consortiums should ideally team European actors with well-developed industrial expertise as well as new space actors, aiming for innovative concepts and strategic partnerships.
To do so, the implementation of the PoC-1 project is being unfolded through the following steps:
- A preliminary RFI has been concluded to gather the commercial interests, potential technical contributions, motivations and competences of the interested parties. The content of the PoC-1 has been refined accordingly and the fields-of-interest from subcontractors has been identified by the primes.
- A pitch day will be organised on the 16th September 2022 to present the rules of the upcoming contest and allow relevant subcontractors to present their value proposals.
- A dedicated ITT (in a “contest” format) will be issued by the end of the 3rd quarter of 2022, for contracting Phase 0/A of the PoC 1 and concluded in front of expert juries.
- The PoC-1 Phases B/C/D/E, up to the in-orbit demonstration, will be implemented after the ESA Council at ministerial level to be held in November 2022 (CM22), following a competitive tendering process.
Let’s build together a new European Space Logistics ecosystem!