With thousands of satellites soaring above us, space is beginning to resemble the Mass Pike at rush hour. But just like cars, satellites break down from time to time — and there’s no roadside assistance up there.
“Imagine if every car we ever created was just left on the road,” said aerospace entrepreneur Jeromy Grimmett. “That’s what we’re doing in space.”
Grimmett’s tiny company, Rogue Space Systems Corp., has devised a daring solution. It’s building “orbots” — satellites with robotic arms that can fly right up to a disabled satellite and fix it. Or these orbots could use their arms to collect orbiting rubble left behind by hundreds of previous launches — dangerous junk that’s become a hazard to celestial navigation.
It’s a mission worthy of the best brains at NASA or SpaceX. But Rogue Space is a three-year-old, 25-person startup based in just about the last place you’d look — Laconia, N.H.
The company has scored $2.75 million in federal funds and a partnership with Draper Laboratory, the Cambridge organization that built the navigation systems that took the Apollo missions to the moon. And Grimmett, who was previously managing partner at CloudBrix, a data network services company in Portsmouth, said about three-quarters of his team are aerospace veterans. They include chief space architect Barbara Plante, formerly of Lockheed Martin, Planet Labs, and Rocket Lab, as well as chief revenue officer Brent Abbott, who worked at Honeywell Aerospace and UK-based Surrey Satellite Technology.
“Frankly, we’re the dark horse of the space industry,” said Grimmett.
Lots of aerospace companies are interested in maintaining satellites in orbit. Colorado-based Orbit Fab says it’ll start in-flight satellite refueling missions in 2025; the company, backed by $28.5 million in venture funding, plans to charge $20 million to deliver 220 pounds of fuel, with the US Space Force as its first customer. Meanwhile, a pair of satellites launched last year by defense contractor Lockheed Martin conducted successful rendezvous tests earlier this month. And Japan’s Astroscale tested a space cleanup satellite in 2021 and plans another launch this year.
Rogue Space aims to catch up fast, with help from Small Business Technology Transfer funds from the SpaceWERX Orbital Prime initiative. Created by the US Space Force, Orbital Prime seeks to build up US private-sector firms that can protect national security by maintaining military satellites and clearing hazardous space debris.
Rogue Space scored its SpaceWERX grants last May, and it’s preparing for its first launch. The satellite, named Barry, is set for liftoff later this year aboard a SpaceX rocket. Named after a bat that flew around the headquarters building and became a company mascot, Barry is a proof-of-concept unit, weighing only about 10 pounds. It’s designed to test sensors and software to confirm the system can identify and track other satellites. The core electronics package was created by Rogue Space, with final assembly handled by Endurosat, a small satellite builder in Bulgaria.
If all goes according to plan, the real excitement will begin later this year when the company launches “Laura,” named for Grimmett’s deceased adoptive mother. Laura will be about four times Barry’s size and will use maneuvering thrusters to test the extremely precise navigation needed to approach a satellite.
In late 2024 or early 2025, the company plans to launch “Fred,” named for the late father-in-law of the company’s chief technology officer, Michael Pica. Fred will weigh about 660 pounds, with robotic arms for fixing other satellites or for dragging debris to a lower orbit, where it will fall back to Earth.
Not everybody is on board with in-flight satellite repair as a business. “The roots of the technology have been there since at least the 90s,” said Bonnie Triezenberg, senior engineer at RAND Corp., who spent over 30 years at Boeing building military and scientific satellites. “Given how long we have been capable of doing this, and how little it’s been done, there doesn’t seem to be much demand.”
Triezenberg said new satellites keep getting cheaper and better. “If I’m going to go through all this trouble to put something new in space, why not get a more advanced system instead of trying to renew the old one?” she said.
But Grimmett said that many advanced satellites cost millions of dollars apiece, on top of the cost of launching a replacement. For these satellites, it makes sense to give them a few more years of life.
“One of our customers has a satellite that’s malfunctioning right now,” he said. “They want us to go up and repair it.”
It’ll be some time before Rogue Space will be ready to undertake such a mission. But Grimmett is confident that his company can get it done. After all, he said, “We’re going to space. Nobody thought we’d get that far.”