Quality Assurance Inspections in GEO; Unbiased Close-Ups of Multi-Million Dollar Assets
Updated: Dec 5, 2021
Through no small chain of engineering feats, combined with creative human ingenuity that borders on magic, today, satellites are assembled, prepped, fueled, launched, and placed into orbit at a staggering pace. However, no sooner than these expensive assets get to orbit, a clock is counting down to the end of their useful life. From “in service” to "out of service", it's all a race to optimize the investments made, because we're yet to be able to repair, refuel, upgrade, or service them in space to extend their useful life and ROI.
In general, the last time a satellite owner is in the position to inspect, take close-up pictures, or service of one of their satellites is in a clean-room or assembly bay. I say “in general” because advances in technology and manufacturing have recently allowed Lockheed Martin, York, and others in the industry to redesign their bus assemblies so they can be upgraded with new hardware or serviced while in orbit.
Current operational procedures and best practices require complex assembly checklists be completed under strict two-person control (TPC) whenever these multi-million dollar assets (supporting multi-billion dollar revenue streams) are put together on earth. In some instances, that “TPC check” is performed by an independent third-party because of the critical nature of the work which makes it some serious next-level Quality Assurance (QA).
But who is performing that TPC/QA check when satellites are serviced in orbit?
Just as it's now becoming feasible to service satellites in space, the next logical step is the need for unbiased QA inspections of satellites in GEO - from near GEO, not from earth.
Rather than relying on onboard telemetry or “first person POV” close-up pictures obtained by the service provider, imagine the benefits of having an unbiased third-party observe, document, and verify that the service was performed as ordered and successfully completed?
Imagine pictures from different angles and at different resolutions. Complete video-like documentation from pre, to post-service attitudes. Multi-modal information from various sensors to put a seal of approval on a service linked to a $500M+ revenue stream. Would that not be a game changer?
How much would this unbiased QA service be worth to owners and operators? Actually, how much would this TPC/QA close-up service be worth to spacecraft insurers? Some back of the napkin math can help visualize those answers.
Imagine resolving a single disputed claim on a botched maintenance call in half the time that it takes today, or merely correctly adjudicating a dispute to see the upside of a service like this.
The above are honest questions; I’d actually like to know what these are worth.
There may not be a big need today as we are just starting on the next phase of our space journey. In the near term, manufacturers will likely service their own buses and thus service in space may begin as a “family affair". That said, as the space market expands, evolves, and diversifies, it's logical to assume that the original manufacturer will not be the party servicing its satellites in space.
Who will “make the call” then, when a service or maintenance visit in orbit "goes sideways"? It would be great to have that unbiased voice on the field that says: “After reviewing the play, the ruling on the field...”
To the collective benefit of owners, operators, and insurers, the future of QA in space should happen in tandem with servicing assets in space.