After a period of intense development, in-space logistics provider Atomos Space (Atomos) is ready to launch two internally designed and built spacecraft. The vehicles, Quark and Gluon, will perform rendezvous, docking, refueling, and orbital transfer. This demonstration mission, dubbed The Singing Astronomer (after astronomer and opera singer Caroline Herschel, the first woman to receive a salary as a scientist) will pave the way for Atomos’s Quark Orbital Transfer Vehicle (OTV). Quark will provide in-space services such as orbit raising, satellite life extension, cargo delivery to space stations, and refueling.
Atomos’s approach to space logistics is to use “space resident” OTVs. In contrast to “kick-stage” OTVs, this architecture puts the “last mile delivery vans at the arrival airport and not on the plane with the cargo,” per Atomos CEO, Vanessa Clark. “We gain performance and greatly reduce our costs by making it reusable. Having our OTVs staged on-orbit is a huge change to the status-quo”.
The Singing Astronomer mission will see the Quark OTV launch with a target spacecraft, Gluon, on SpaceX’s Transporter 10 in February of 2024. After separation from the launch vehicle, the two spacecraft will move through their paces, with Quark rendezvousing and docking autonomously to Gluon. Once docked, Quark will refuel from Gluon, before commencing further release, docking, propulsive, and orbital transfer demonstrations. This demonstration follows the method Atomos will use for deploying large constellations, with multiple client payloads integrated to the Gluon pallet for launch to accelerate and simplify their capture by Quark in orbit. This mission will test Atomos’s integrated hardware and software developments, foundational for high delta-V orbital transfers and life extension of satellites in Geostationary Earth Orbit (GEO).
Crucial for realizing a high-performing and cost-effective solution was ensuring that knowledge of how the entire spacecraft works resides internal to Atomos. Aerospace is plagued with the desire to reinvent the wheel, but being too removed from understanding how the integrated system works and passively relying on vendors can also have dire consequences. “This is a large part of why we’ve brought a lot in-house,” said Atomos COO, William Kowalski. “Our team is the closest to the problems that come up during development—with the most passion to get it right, quickly.” Last summer, after moving away from a bus vendor, Atomos had a notional design for Quark and Gluon within 48-hours, a development plan later that month, and will go from ideation to launch in less than 18-months. Being able to quickly validate the viability of existing solutions allowed Atomos to decide early on to develop their own docking technologies and refueling operations to provide the best and most reliable value to customers. The Singing Astronomer mission will demonstrate docking and inter-spacecraft refueling, a critical capability for space resident OTVs.
Atomos attributes its ability to rapidly develop these technologies and two spacecraft busses internally to its exceptional team. 95% of the company are experienced engineers with backgrounds in in spacecraft development, operations, and spacecraft rendezvous. “Nothing like this mission has been attempted since DARPA’s Orbital Express, which had a budget more than 20x ours,” says Clark. “The size of our team – less than 40 – makes this especially extraordinary.” Atomos is deep into the flight vehicle assembly, integration, and testing, with propulsion, rendezvous, docking, and refueling already space qualified.