The Space Development Agency is interested in hiring commercial space firms to move inactive satellites out of low Earth orbit at the end of their service life.

The agency issued a notice to industry March 25 asking for analysis and studies on the feasibility and availability of in-space disposal services.

“SDA believes there are several industry partners with concepts and business models to support commercial on-orbit servicing, to include assisted disposal operations,” the agency said. “As such, SDA is interested in studying the feasibility of using these services as a ‘belt and suspenders‘ approach.”

In the coming years, SDA plans to launch hundreds of data transport and missile tracking satellites into low Earth orbit, about 1,200 miles above the equator. Those systems are designed to deorbit on their own in compliance with U.S. government standards, which call for operators to remove spacecraft once their missions have ended. Options include moving the satellites to designated disposal orbits where there is less risk that they could cause a debris-causing collision in space.

However, SDA is interested in securing a backup plan should those satellites fail earlier than expected or be unable to deorbit on their own. Companies including Blue Origin, Impulse Space, Firefly Aerospace and Northrop Grumman subsidiary Space Logistics are developing orbital transfer vehicles that can essentially provide a satellite tow service, among other missions.

Derek Tournear, SDA’s director, said March 18 at the Satellite 2024 conference in Washington, D.C., he’s interested in the business model these firms are pursuing.

He noted that if these spacecraft materialize, it could reduce the cost of SDA satellites, eliminating requirements for the backup systems that add size and weight.

“I want to be able to take more risks on my satellite, not have redundant propulsion, things like that,” Tournear said. “There’s several companies that are working on that, and I hope they’re successful,” he said.

Orbital transfer vehicles are part of a broader space logistics market that includes services like in-space satellite refueling and repair. The Space Force is exploring the use of these capabilities for some of its spacecraft — particularly those that need to maneuver to observe activities or objects.

Tournear said he doesn’t expect SDA systems to need services beyond an end-of-life tow because they’re not designed to last beyond a few years, at which point they’ll be replaced with fresh technology.

“I still do not want these LEO satellites to be maintained or refueled or fixed on orbit,” he said. “I want them to be more expendable.”

Courtney Albon is C4ISRNET’s space and emerging technology reporter. She has covered the U.S. military since 2012, with a focus on the Air Force and Space Force. She has reported on some of the Defense Department’s most significant acquisition, budget and policy challenges.

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