In-orbit manufacturing and recycling are concepts that have gained momentum in the past years. They could change the way space systems will be designed and operated in the future.

Today space products cannot be reused or recycled. But the reuse of space debris in orbit could turn a problem into a valuable asset.

Before recycling a satellite, the understanding of the implications on the designat system level is crucial. Based on this, an analysis of how a satellite has to be designed so it can be recycled/reused in orbit was necessary. 

To address this complex issue ESA set up an internal multidisciplinary team and asked them to explore synergies among the different possible scenarios and building blocks.

The ESA Concurrent Design team has been invited to study this topic and its first action was to name their new activity: OMAR (On-orbit Manufacturing Assembly and Recycling).

The objectives of the study were to:

1- Integrate different technology activities and mission scenarios to be assessed in ESA in a consistent system approach

2- Establish a baseline scenario and mission architecture

3- Based on the selected scenario derive a logical system architecture of the on-orbit servicing station

After a few weeks of study, the team concluded that in-orbit recycling is still a true challenge, which might be called a vision. Today, the reality is that recycling in orbit would be technically extremely complicated and is not clear if the resources used to capture and process the waste in space would not be larger than the ones saved by recycling. However, they derived a few lessons from the study which could benefit in-orbit servicing.

‘Maintaining, repairing or upgrading a satellite on-orbit would clearly benefit for prepared satellites, explains Tiago Soares, ESA system engineer. ‘In other terms, we should foresee before the launch that the satellite will need modifications or repairing.’

It would make sense to prepare full constellations rather than individual satellites.

Some parts of a satellite would definitely benefit from being refurbished or manufactured in space. These are in particular large parabolic reflectors or booms.

‘Indeed, the largest and more complex structures could become even bigger and would definitely be lighter if produced in space than if manufactured on ground. This would result in an increased performance of the missions’, says Tiago Soares. However, this comes of course at a cost, and would require putting in place on-orbit capabilities to manufacture large structures in space. ‘We will also need to find how to perform the quality controls of the pieces that will be manufactured in space’, adds Tiago.

Ideally, we should target the refurbishing of satellites. Indeed, that would bring immediate benefits and current technology development are already on their way to enable such in-orbit servicing. Refurbishment would help extend the life-time of satellites. Indeed, you could replace dysfunctional pieces or even change the payload of a satellite. You might consider doubling the life-time of your satellites!

As manufacturing and refurbishment have been discovered as the main drivers for in-orbit manufacturing, the team looked into concrete use cases. This looks promising as they could identify a large series of them, based the needs of navigation Earth observation and telecommunication missions. Typical subjects of refurbishment could include: complex parts with limited reliability or lifetime e.g.  atomic clocks, or parts going through high number of cycles during the satellite lifetime e.g. antenna pointing mechanisms for inter satellite link…

OMAR, a solution to address the Time-to-Market Gap problem

Javier Comesana-Pineiro, System and Software Engineer supporting the Navigation Directorate, explains:

This “On-Orbit Manufacturing, Assembly and Recycling” concept, fully explored in the OMAR study, can become the cornerstone to address the Time-to-Market Gap problem, giving an answer in terms of affordable growth capability. The evolution of on-orbit infrastructure is rather slow, due to the inherent difficulties of the space segment, in comparison with the ground segment, where new developments, updates and upgrades (and fixes!) are more frequent and aggressive, because everything is there at hand. By comparison, it is so costly to deploy new satellites to the orbit, in terms of cost, schedule and risk. This means that any evolution will come in terms of baby steps, slow but safe, in order to avoid mishaps. In an era of rapidly evolving technology, whenever a new technology or technique is available, it gets implanted straightforwardly in ground systems. However, its addition to space systems takes a longer time, due to various known factors: specific validation needs, reliability improvement needs, long-lead items, among others.

This fact, unavoidably, creates a time-to-market gap, on the delivery of novel services to users, putting the space systems in a disadvantageous position behind conventional ground systems.

Traditional answers to the time-to-market gap problem consist of overdesigning the space-segment, including artificial margins in every satellite budget (power, mass, envelope, data), and in several equipment units. However, this solution entails new problems on its own: the satellites become largely non-optimised, and there is a substantial investment with only conditional return. Very expensive resources are committed in advance, without certain knowledge of future usage (e.g. a new technology could pop-up making the booked resources or concept obsolete well before usage). 

Obviously, this conventional approach results prohibitive, especially for big constellations. In such scenarios, the OMAR philosophy, through its associated functionalities (on-orbit manufacturing, assembly, refurbishing, and recycling) will ultimately push the state-or-the art ahead, by making possible an approach “to-grow as you need”, at the cost of a reduced initial investment, which will definitively shorten the time-to-market gap of novel services delivered through the space-segment.

Before OMAR the time-to-market gap solution was to store resources on-board. After OMAR, the space system infrastructure will no longer be a storage or resources, but it will grow dynamically, as, when, and if need to accommodate updates, upgrades, and fixes, which will allow both to implement novel system services, and to extend the life-time of the satellites. Ultimately, the competitiveness of space systems to deliver user services will be improved over terrestrial distributed services, and never jeopardized by the time-to-market gap.’

OMAR, a first step towards recycling in space

The OMAR study is just the first step towards the potential of recycling in space. The capability to perform manufacturing and assembling operations in space needs to be assessed today, if we want to guarantee space sustainability for future generations.

In-Orbit Servicing: a vision

In addition, there is broad interest in offering services in space from the all scientific community, space operators, space agencies and governments for scientific, security, or commercial reasons. However, Antonio Caiazzo, Aurora Technology system engineer for ESA, highlights that ‘the technical feasibility needs still to be demonstrated, with several studies and tests but OMAR is definitely the starting point for a new way to manage space activities, risks and to give an added value to space assets.’ 

Adding to the technical complexity of producing or refurbishing in space, there might be some other challenges such as the legal aspects of producing in space. One might wonder who will be responsible if there is an incident during the production phase. Not to forget that an accident in space could lead to the proliferation of new space junk. All these aspects shall be further studied in the future.

The team advises to follow the study in focusing on the benefits of refurbishments and manufacturing in space. It also recommends to map the technology developments needed and existing to identify the knowledge gaps.

At last, Andrea Tromba, RHEA System Engineer for ESA, representing the Earth Observation Programmes during the study, comments: ‘In-orbit manufacturing, assembly and spacecraft refurbishment service may foster development of larger space infrastructure as well as enhance satellite lifetime providing a unique leverage for both scientific and commercial applications. The technological challenges related with such an ambitious objective will be faced in the frame of OMAR project, which will identify the most promising technical solutions and assess benefits for future European missions.

Do your bit

  • Contribute to one of the three Invitation to Tender published on EMITS following the OMAR activity:
Subject On-orbit manufactured spacecraft – system design impacts of on-orbit manufacture and assembly
Amount €250,000.00
Closing date 11 October 2019 at 13:00 hours (Amsterdam time zone)


Subject Preliminary design of on-orbit servicing station for satellite manufacture, refurbish and recycle
Amount €295,000.00
Closing date 11 October 2019 at 13:00 hours (Amsterdam time zone)


Subject Design for recycling – mission architectures to manufacture, refurbish and recycle satellites on-orbit
Amount €100,000.00
Closing date 11 October 2019 at 13:00 hours (Amsterdam time zone)