Operational Satellite Gets New Lease on Life

Article By : George Leopold

A robotic repair service extends the life of an active satellite, promising a new era of reusable spacecraft.

An Intelsat satellite launched in 2004 got a new lease on life after a Northrop Grumman subsidiary carried out its second successful on-orbit servicing mission — and its first involving an operational satellite.

SpaceLogistics LLC said its robotic Mission Extension Vehicle-2 (MEV-2) docked with the Intelsat commercial communications satellite in geosynchronous orbit, delivering “life-extension services” that will keep the Intelsat 10-02 spacecraft aloft through the middle of this decade.

The Northrop Grumman unit carried out the world’s first robotic maintenance mission last year. The successful rendezvous and docking last week marks the first time the satellite tender has docked with a functioning spacecraft in geosynchronous orbit.

The Intelsat bird was low on fuel. It will remain docked to the MEV-2 for five years, at which point the service satellite will move on to its next mission.

Last year’s mission boosted the Intelsat IS-901 out of a geosynchronous “graveyard” orbit to restore service in April 2020. MEV-2 docked with Intelsat 10-02 in its operational orbit.

“The success of this mission paves the way for our second generation of servicing satellites and robotics, offering flexibility and resiliency for both commercial and government satellite operators, which can enable entirely new classes of missions,” said Tom Wilson, Northrop Grumman’s vice president of strategic space systems and president of SpaceLogistics.

The revived satellite delivers broadband and media distribution services to Intelsat customers in Europe, the Middle East, Africa and South America, including more than 900 channels to about18 million European households.

“Northrop Grumman’s MEV technology has helped us extend the life of two high-performing satellites,” added Mike Demarco, Intelsat’s chief services officer.

The first MEV mission demonstrated a low-risk mechanical docking system designed to capture and attach to satellite components. Once docked, the servicer controlled the attitude and orbit of the combined vehicle stack.

MEV-2 was launched by an Ariane 5 rocket in August 2020, gingerly approaching the Intelsat spacecraft over a period of weeks to calibrate systems before docking. Several attempts to dock were reportedly conducted before MEV-2 closed in for capture on April 12.

Intelsat 10-02 as seen by MEV-2. (Source: Northrop Grumman)

Last year, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency named SpaceLogistics a commercial partner for its Robotic Servicing of Geosynchronous Satellites program. The effort includes on-orbit repair, assembly, inspections and satellite relocation.

The DARPA contract also calls for Northrop Grumman to design “mission extension pods” that would augment the propulsion systems on aging satellites to extend operations by as much as six years.

DARPA is aiming to launch a repair satellite by the end of 2022.

Along with service extension missions that would help reduce the number of dead satellites, efforts are also underway to tackle the growing problem of space junk. A demonstration mission launched in March will attempt to capture orbital debris. ELSA-d, as in End-of-Life-Services by Astroscale, a U.K.-based orbital trash hauler, will seek to de-orbit dead satellites and other space junk that would burn up when reentering the atmosphere.

The celestial traffic jam grows worse by the week, with companies like SpaceX lofting dozens of Starlink broadband Internet satellites per launch. News of the ELSA-d demonstration elicited words of encouragement from one veteran space traveler: “I hope this works,” tweeted Apollo 11 command module pilot Michael Collins.

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