Why Self-propagating Robots Are the Future of Space
From asteroid mining to on-orbit servicing, autonomous robots are key to the future of space exploration and defense.
Imagine it’s 2050. A satellite in orbit needs more power because its solar panels are degrading. Flying over some space junk with old solar arrays, the satellite grabs it, rebuilds it and remanufactures itself a new solar array from that orbital debris’ raw materials.
This is called self-propagation: a robot’s ability to repurpose hardware on its own. There are many applications for self-servicing and self-propagating capabilities, but the possibilities in space are particularly interesting to global security and aerospace company Lockheed Martin.
As space exploration continues to pick up speed, the space economy and human activity will look vastly different in the next 30 years, says Paul Pelley, senior director of advanced programs at Lockheed Martin Space. Humans could likely have bases on the surface of the moon or Mars with limited crews and tools. And with humans and equipment so far from Earth, self-propagation capabilities will be necessary, enabling autonomous robotics to mine resources, conduct maintenance and build parts without human interaction.
And as these technologies come to fruition, agencies like NASA and the U.S. Space Force can benefit from the systems and services Lockheed Martin is developing to make these capabilities a reality by 2050 for industry and federal customers.
“Imagine if you had robots that could land on the moon, make themselves bigger and then build a base. It’s all done autonomously so when humans show up, they have facilities already there,” says Pelley.
The Roadmap to Self-propagating Robots
To reach the level of technological advancement necessary to make self-propagating robots a reality, Pelley says there will be an emphasis on power sources and energy storage. That includes how to generate the power needed in space manufacturing to decompose elements down and build them back up again.
Mining and manufacturing recycled materials will take much more power than generated today. As would, for instance, constructing launch pads and habitats with lunar regolith.
While self-propagating technology isn’t quite at that stage yet, it’s something Pelley and his colleagues are considering as Lockheed Martin looks to the future. In fact, he has been thinking steps ahead since joining the company in 2001. Pelley has always been drawn to space and got his master’s degree in aerospace engineering with a focus on multidomain optimization and computational fluid dynamics.
“I got sucked into space straight out of school and that really captured my imagination,” he says. “The ability to go farther and faster and higher and do amazing things, especially with a company like Lockheed Martin, it really hooked me.”
Laying the Groundwork for Self-propagation
While these technologies might seem futuristic, Lockheed Martin is laying the groundwork for these game-changing capabilities. To make strides in power and propulsion, the company has its hands in nuclear, thermal propulsion and is exploring nuclear-efficient power in space. For instance, the company is already working with NASA on ways to keep hydrogen cold and transfer it in space for large scale propulsion, and with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency to demo nuclear thermal propulsion.
In the space manufacturing realm, Lockheed Martin is about to launch its in-space upgrade satellite system known as LINUSS™, a GNC.CV demonstrator to support future on-orbit capabilities. And considering self-propagated spacecraft will require things to be done autonomously, the company is investing in mission augmentation.
Moreover, the company recently released an open-source interface standard for on-orbit docking, called the Mission Augmentation Port or MAP, standard which provides a mechanical interface design for docking spacecraft to one another. The company’s Augmentation System Port Interface, or ASPIN. ASPIN is designed to comply with the MAP interface, and equips satellites with docking adapters so organizations can add new mission capabilities to a platform after launch.
The ASPIN adapter provides an electrical and data interface between a spacecraft and a satellite augmentation vehicle so operational spacecraft can be updated and there is a built-in servicing infrastructure for the spacecraft on orbit.
ASPIN can’t fulfill self-propagation — yet, says Gillian Haden, systems engineer for advanced program development at Lockheed Martin. That will require another 30 years or so, but it does allow spacecraft to swap parts out in orbit.
“If you want to add a different type of communications to an existing satellite, we’re able to upgrade and provide servicing on orbit,” she says. “It's not actually that satellite in 2050 making a new one in the platform itself, but it is a steppingstone.”
Self-propagation has several applications, including transportation, the ability to manufacture and reuse space debris and asteroid mining.
One of the biggest benefits of this technology is using space resources rather than launching everything from Earth. Costs and energy consumption will decrease.
“Recycling orbital debris is an excellent reuse of all the different materials and capabilities that don't work anymore in Earth orbit,” says Timothy Cichan, the Space Exploration Architect at Lockheed Martin Space who has been delivering commercial and civil space needs at Lockheed Martin for 20 years. “But also, getting the resources from an asteroid or from the moon, it just takes less energy to do that compared to launching from Earth.”
To enable this, Lockheed Martin is working to enable artificial intelligence and machine learning, which will increase the autonomy of these systems so they can work on their own and achieve complex missions. They will also be able to solve simple problems, and when they can’t, these systems will know to call home for human support and remote operations.
“As we increase the complexity of what we want to do in space and we get to greater distances from Earth, these systems are going to need to have a lot more autonomy,” he says.
These robots will also need the ability to propel themselves around, which is why Lockheed Martin is looking toward propellant resources that exist outside of Earth, particularly on the moon, which has water ice to make hydrogen and oxygen.
And when it comes to mining asteroids, which can be rich in the elements necessary to create many of the resources needed for manufacturing in space, there’s still much research that needs to be done to design and test various manufacturing techniques that can produce the necessary elements, says Mike Lavis, ASPIN Program Manager at Lockheed Martin who has worked on commercial satellites and solar panels for the International Space Station, among other programs, since 1997.
“You need different manufacturing techniques to actually produce what you need to do,” he says.
Getting a Head Start on Tomorrow’s Technology
These capabilities will require advanced technological knowledge in engineering and physics, and thus this vision won’t be possible without continuing to train and upskill the workforces of today and tomorrow, says Haden.
“The power needs are going to take a lot of chemical engineers to be able to develop batteries and the nuclear fission and all those things that are needed to be possible since that is one of the linchpins in taking this technology further,” she says.
Once robots can self-propagate, find resources and repurpose them to manufacture capabilities on their own, spacecraft and satellites can explore the solar system even further. We may be talking decades into the future, but the investments and collaboration between industry, government and academia needs to be happening now — especially as the technological groundwork is already underway.
“Pulling the resources and talent together to do those great things, I think, is going to be key,” Lavis says. “The talent is out there around the world and to make the 2050 vision a reality, we need a lot of collaboration.”
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