We are excited to announce that the Hyperspace Challenge accelerator is heading into its third season as applications for the 2020 cohort, which will convene later this year, officially opened August 18.

Since we launched in 2018, we’ve been working closely with the scientists at the Air Force Research Lab and many other agencies to help the government partner with startups that can advance innovations in space. As the accelerator has evolved, we’ve discovered a whole community of startups that are developing incredibly innovative technologies and want to pursue business with the government.

Our bigger mission/vision for the future is to foster a collaborative ecosystem that supports the development and application of cutting-edge startup and university technology to benefit the U.S. Space Force. When startups are considering potential customers, we want the U.S. Space Force to be a great option to do business with.

The past two cohorts have tackled geospatial analytics (2018) and small satellite technologies (2019) with 16 of the 24 companies advancing into new contracts as a result of the program. This year’s cohort will focus on building secure, trustworthy autonomous and automated solutions for space. 

The recent, historic launch and successful return of SpaceX, which marked the first time a manned mission of a commercially built vessel was sent to space, underscores the relevance of this topic: the industry is advancing into new territory. How can we apply autonomous technology to this momentum to escalate and elevate these advances? And what advances are occurring in the commercial sector that could be effectively applied to government space programs? 

Discovering these and pairing them with the government scientists whose work can benefit the most is at the heart of our mission. 

Currently, the development of autonomous solutions for space lags behind enterprise solutions developed for use on the ground and in the air. Hardware suitable for use in space – because it’s such a harsh environment that’s difficult to navigate – is expensive, and software is constrained by a lack of high-speed space processors and security concerns.   

The national space community collectively recognizes that the industry could be truly transformed with the growing use of spacecraft capable of automatically handling complex tasks. But complex tasks require complex mechanisms to complete them. This year’s cohort will be critical in the effort to determine if autonomous technology is truly up to the task. 

First, scientists want to know more about the limits of autonomous technology – can it do what they want it to? Second, and more importantly, they need to know whether autonomous platforms and algorithms can be designed to be reliable, safe, and secure. If so, then key barriers to space exploration fall.  

To this end, these are some of the questions this cohort will be tackling:

  • How can we push the autonomous servicing space vehicles in orbit to advance tasks like navigation, refueling, and rescue of damaged/malfunctioning vehicles?
  • How can we use machine learning to improve and enhance the reliability of automatic detection of hazards in space such as debris and congestion in low-earth-orbit?
  • How do we improve the automation of maneuvering vehicles in space to increasingly avoid in-orbit collisions?
  • Can autonomous systems be developed to detect and react to the failure of their own systems, and if so, how? Could they ultimately outperform humans?   
  • How can autonomous technology help improve space training systems to reduce the costs of live flight testing?
  • Can autonomous technology be employed to improve modern computing hardware so it can better survive the harsh environment of space?

The government agencies that have posed these questions and will be working with the cohort include teams from across the new U.S. Space Force, Air Force, and other government agencies. 

The companies participating in the 2020 cohort will be announced in late September. Applications to participate in the cohort are open through the end of August.

It’s important to note that companies do not need to be developing technology specifically for space to qualify for this cohort. There are many technologies out there that could have an important and potentially surprising application in space. And the more we explore those technologies, the more likely we are to identify creative solutions that can address current needs. 

Some examples of technology that wasn’t developed for space that we could explore for space application include: 

  • Autonomous vehicles and self-driving cars that can aid recovery from failures onboard spacecraft
  • Deep-ocean exploration technologies developed to navigate the remote undersea environment
  • Robotic electronics adapted to survive lethal radiation exposure 
  • Machine learning techniques and training procedures used for delivery robots that could be adapted to train satellite constellations

Regardless of the technology, we’re certain this next cohort will bring the same kind of energy and creativity to our efforts to advance the U.S. government’s innovations in space exploration. We can’t wait to meet them, learn more about how they see our world, and find out how they will change it – or, rather, the space around it. 

Capt. Roger Anderson is an active-duty Air Force officer currently assigned to the Air Force Research Labs Space Vehicles Directorate. He has previously served in various government and innovation programs throughout his career.

The views in this article are entirely the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Air Force, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.