On-Orbit Servicing of Aging Satellites Possible by End of Year

By Stew Magnuson
MEV rendering

Art: Orbital ATK

Orbital ATK is moving out aggressively to introduce on-orbit satellite servicing to the space industry, which its says will be a first step toward more advanced concepts such as on-orbit repairs and the assembly of satellites while in space.

The company’s Mission Extension Vehicle 1 recently passed a critical design review and is scheduled for launch by the end of 2018. It will dock with a commercial communications satellite owned by Intelsat. The satellite communications giant — with some 50 spacecraft in orbit — is the system’s first customer. Intelsat also recently signed up to lease MEV 2, which is expected to be completed by mid-2020. The company ultimately would like to build five such space vehicles.

“The price is right, the technology is ready and it’s cool,” Tom Wilson, president of Orbital ATK subsidiary SpaceLogistics, said March 13 at the Satellite 2018 conference in Washington, D.C.

SpaceLogistics is a wholly owned subsidiary of Orbital ATK. Northrop Grumman announced that it was acquiring Orbital ATK in September last year for $9.2 billion. The deal is expected to close pending government approval before July, and the company will change its name to Northrop Grumman Innovation Systems.

Orbital ATK estimates that the servicing vehicle will be able to dock to about 80 percent of the spacecraft operating in geostationary orbit some 22,000 miles above Earth. That includes many military and intelligence community spacecraft, which are based on the same buses. The spacecraft has a six-foot-long extender that connects to a satellite’s liquid apogee engine nozzle, which is found on most satellites constructed by the major manufacturers.

Intelsat is leasing MEV 1 for five years, with an option for two more years. It will attach itself to its Intelsat-901 communications satellite, which has been in orbit for about 15 years but is running out of fuel.

Joe Anderson, vice president of business development and operations for SpaceLogistics, said after the five-year lease ends, MEV 1 can detach itself from Intelsat-901 and be available for other customers for 10 more years or longer because it carries such a large amount of fuel. That would include government and military customers.

“The technology for on-orbit servicing is rapidly evolving,” said Orbital ATK President and CEO David Thompson.

Thompson at the conference revealed the company’s next-generation concept, Mission Extension Pods. It calls for one space vehicle to carry 10 to 12 pods that can be placed on aging or failing satellites with a robotic arm. The pod could then move the spacecraft into a new position or provide it more fuel to extend its life. After the vehicle dispenses all the pods, it goes on to act as an MEV and can attach itself to other satellites for up to 15 years. Orbital ATK is aiming to deploy this system by 2021.

Stephen Spengler, CEO of Intelsat, said, “First of all, it is revenue extension for us." It also offers flexibility. A combination of the spacecraft’s steerable beams, and being able to move to a different orbital slot, allows the company to serve other or underserved markets, he said. The company often de-orbits satellites that have perfectly functioning electronics but no fuel, he said.

Rockets also sometimes don’t deliver satellites to their proper orbits, and need to use up all their fuel to make it to geostationary orbit, he added. In that case, a MEV or pod could be attached so it could serve out its useful life, Anderson said.

SpaceLogistics has a technology roadmap and the MEV is just the first step toward a day — if the market is there — for robots in space that can carry out a variety of tasks. If satellites could be manufactured with interfaces on the outside of the spacecraft, then these robots could swap out batteries, payloads or other faulty components, Anderson said.

“It happens every once in a while when a solar array is stuck and needs to be shaken a bit to deploy,” Spengler said.

Orbital ATK has a contract with NASA to demonstrate constructing satellites in ground space. A request for proposals is expected next year to demonstrate these concepts on orbit, Anderson said.

Paul Gaske, executive vice president of Hughes Network Systems, said on-orbit satellite servicing is of interest to the company, which also provides consumer and government satellite connectivity and runs a fleet of spacecraft.

The most practical utility would be refueling for spacecraft that are nearing the end of their service lives, he said in an interview. Then again, if they are nearing the end of their lives in orbit, then it is probably time for a technology refresh and for them to be replaced, he added.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is pursing the “robotic servicing of geosynchronous satellites” program, which aims to demonstrate inspection and servicing of spacecraft and carry out “house calls in space,” an agency fact sheet said.

It is, along with commercial partner SSL, formerly known as Space Systems Loral, developing a service spacecraft capable of executing “dozens” of missions over several years and has the flexibility to do a variety of repairs. SSL and its parent company MDA Corp. have formed a venture called SIS and signed up

The SSL spacecraft prompted Orbital ATK to file a lawsuit against DARPA in 2017 claiming that the government was unfairly competing with the private sector for the same service. The lawsuit was ultimately dismissed.

Airbus Defence and Space announced last year that it was developing a “Space Tug” to compete in the nascent on-orbit servicing market. Its main missions will be “maintenance and inspection, logistics and cleaning up of space debris,” a YouTube video produced by the company stated.


Topics: Space

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