NASA Aborts $2B Mission To Refuel Space Satellites With A Robotic Arm

hero nasa osam 1 satellite
NASA made the decision to cease and desist with its $2B OSAM-1 (On-orbit Servicing, Assembly, and Manufacturing) project due to continued technical, cost, and schedule challenges. The now defunct project was also abandoned because of a lack of desire among the broader community for refueling unprepared spacecraft, which led to a lack of a committed partner.

The initial reasoning behind the OSAM-1 mission was to develop an unprecedented capability for what NASA called a “robust, cost-effective space infrastructure.” The decision to discontinue the project came after an in-depth, independent project review. NASA added that following Congressional notification processes, along with project management plans to complete an orderly shutdown, it would begin the process of disposing of sensitive hardware, pursuing potential partnerships or alternative hardware uses, and licensing of applicable technological developments.

The space agency once billed its OSAM-1 mission by proposing the question, “Need extra gas or a tune-up for your satellite?” The idea was to build a spacecraft that would be able to “rendezvous with, grasp, refuel and relocate a government-owned satellite to extend its life. OSAM-1 would also provide capabilities to provide satellite operators new ways to manage fleets more efficiently, and the ability to garner more value from their initial investment.

nasa osam 1 project

The OSAM-1 spacecraft would have included an attached payload called Space Infrastructure Dexterous Robot (SPIDER), previously known as Dragonfly during the ground demonstration phase. SPIDER would have included a 16-foot (5-meter) robotic arm, which would assemble seven elements to form a functional 9-foot (3-meter) communications antenna. The assembled antenna would be used for a Ka-band transmission with a ground station.

Along with SPIDER, the payload would also have included a 32-foot (10-meter) composite beam using technology developed by Tethers Unlimited of Bothell, Washington. The assembly of the large robotic arm was meant to verify the ability to construct large spacecraft structures in orbit. One project that OSAM-1 was meant to provide included using its robotic arm and tools to grapple Landsat 7, a satellite launched in 1999, and provide it with more fuel.

An audit report of OSAM-1 in October 2023 reported the project team with Maxar Technologies had struggled to keep up with deadlines for SPIDER. The report added that due to Maxar’s “poor performance,” NASA would have to provide unplanned manpower and engineering support to help the California-based company to help deliver it.

The report added that Maxar had “significantly underestimated the scope and complexity of the work, lacked full understanding of NASA technical requirements, and were deficient in necessary expertise” to meet NASA’s standards. Maxar confirmed this aspect of the report as well.

If anything can be learned from OSAM-1 being cancelled, it is that building anything for space related missions is both hard and expensive. If there is a positive in all this, it is that NASA says it will work on lessening the impact of the OSAM-1’s cancellation on its staff at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.