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SpaceLogistics Sat Servicing Mission Taps New Markets « Breaking Defense

SpaceLogistics MEV robotic satellite servicing vehicle with Mission Extension Pod

WASHINGTON: SpaceLogistics will hit its next big milestone in its first-of-a-kind commercial satellite servicing mission by early next month, repositioning an Intelsat 901 communications satellite back into a working orbit using the firm’s Mission Extension Vehicle-1 robotic spacecraft, says Joe Anderson, vice president of operations and business development.

If all goes well, the firm will have chocked up another historic first that likely will crack open a large commercial and national security market. As Breaking D readers are well aware, DoD and the services have all expressed interest — if not yet a lot of investment — in robotic on-orbit servicing.

The MEV-1 mission “demonstrates that commercial commercial industry can do this, and we’ve invested. So far to date, it’s been 100 percent of our own internal funding to do this program, and we’ve demonstrated that we can do it successfully and safely,” Anderson told me in an interview last week.

“I just want to say, first of all, a shout out for this incredible success — a pure commercial success — in Geosynchronous Orbit to take a satellite, and that was at the end of life because of its propellant being almost gone, and to have another satellite actually now taking control and giving new life,” John London, chief engineer, at Army Space and Missile Defense Command’s Space and Strategic Systems Directorate, told a March 10 panel at the annual Satellite 2020 conference here. “That’s just really opened up a lot of thinking for us.”

While a number of firms have been laying plans for future satellite servicing — from life extension via serving as a kind of spacecraft tug to refueling to software repair/updates to debris removal — the Northrop Grumman subsidiary is the first to have successfully launched such a mission.

The MEV-1 not only performed the first commercial satellite docking when it latched onto Intelsat 901 on Feb. 25, but it also successfully lifted the satellite into a position above its operational station in Geosynchronous Orbit (GEO). The MEV-1 is finishing integration with Intelsat 901 in that out-of-way orbit so as not to endanger other working satellites.

Then, at the end of this month, it will provide the power to reposition the two coupled spacecraft back into an orbit where the Intelsat satellite can once again begin broadcasting (at 27.5 degrees West in GEO).

“So, that’s the first big milestone for the year — or the next big milestone I should say,” Anderson said.

The MEV-1 will stay docked and provide power to the Intelsat bird for five years — when it will once again lift it up out of GEO to a graveyard orbit for disposal, and free itself for at least another 10 years of life, during which it could help another failing satellite in GEO.

That operation will be followed by the launch of MEV-2 in the second quarter of this year, Anderson said, which will do the same life extension mission for another Intelsat bird (Intelsat 1002) at the end of the year.

At the same time, he said, SpaceLogistics is gearing up to expand the capabilities of its Mission Extension Vehicle (MEV) to actually repair a spacecraft in orbit under DARPA’s Robotic Servicing of Geosynchronous Satellites (RSGS) program. SpaceLogistics will be using a sophisticated robotic arm provided by DARPA to equip ailing satellites with “mission extension pods” that provide propulsion augmentation, Anderson said.

“This is a great thing that will allow us to do services beyond what the MEV does,” Anderson said. “MEV does just docked life extension.”

SpaceLogistics — formerly Orbital ATK —  snagged the DARPA contract on March 4 — following three years of turmoil in the program that included a failed lawsuit, ironically by Orbital ATK, and the surprise withdrawal by the original contractor, Space Systems Loral, now part of Maxar Technologies. Under RSGS, SpaceLogistics is using its own money to use DARPA’s robotic arms to undertake repair missions as a way to help spur expansion of the commercial marketplace for satellite servicing.

“In that program, DARPA’s providing us the robotic system that our mission robotic vehicle will use. This mission robotic vehicle’s primary mission is installation of these mission extension pods [MEP] … they are essentially a propulsion augmentation device,” Anderson explained.

“So, I can install that on a client vehicle and it will do orbit control for them,” he added. “Each MEP will provide about six years of life extension for the client.”

SpaceLogistics already has pre-agreements (know as term sheets) with three potential customers for propulsion augmentation under RSGS, he said. But adding propulsion capability to extend satellite life isn’t the only potential application for the MEPs, Anderson stressed.

“The robotic vehicle will let us do other types of services as well. We can install other types of augmentation devices,” he said. “For example, if a satellite needed a new sensor suite or something, we could install a new sensor. It’s possible to add on another payload to this way as well.”

Indeed, Anderson enthused, the possibilities for future servicing are almost unlimited — presuming that new satellites being put up, unlike current satellites, are actually equipped with specialized grappling fixtures to make it easy for a robotic vehicle to dock with them.

“The next thing you start thinking about is, what if on these new satellites we put on something like a USB port that’s on your computer, and this USB port provides power and data? What would you plug into this power and data port on a satellite in GEO?,” he said. “Well, what it allows you to do is repair a device that on that satellite that might’ve failed. So, say a momentum wheel or a sensor on your spacecraft is failed, you could plug a new one in.”

Or, he added, an operator could even install a brand new payload — such as shifting a satellite’s radio frequency comms package to an optical communications payload.

“This applies not only to the commercial customers, but I think to our national defense customers as well,” Anderson stressed. “I see a great expansion in capability that will come as a result of this. We are absolutely already talking to people and talking to all parts of the national defense organization.”

Indeed, SpaceLogistics already is working under a July contract with the former Air Force, now Space Force, Space and Missile Systems Center (SMC) to evaluate servicing of four national security satellites.

Further, London said that the Army now is considering the potential for future servicing operations to actually revive non-functioning satellites.

“We’re now looking at ways that we could repurpose other satellites, not just communications satellites but other satellites, that are at end of life or have long-since been given up for dead … to maybe do other things,” he told the Satellite 2020 panel.

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