A large, passenger van-sized spacecraft sidled up to an active, 6-ton satellite on Monday afternoon about 36,000 km above the Earth’s surface. Slowly, ever so slowly, the distance between the two vehicles closed.
There was nothing wrong with the satellite, which is 17 years old and owned by Intelsat. All the while on Wednesday, it continued actively delivering broadband and other media services across Europe, the Middle East, and Africa. But it was running desperately low on fuel to maintain its position, and Intelsat would have soon had to send the vehicle to a “graveyard” orbit.
And so Intelsat contracted with Northrop Grumman to test its new life extension services. That led to the launch of Northrop’s “Mission Extension Vehicle-2” last year, which used fuel-sipping electric propulsion to approach the orbit of Intelsat 10-02 and dock with the active satellite on Wednesday. As a result of this pairing, the satellite will now live on for five more years.
Jean-Luc Froeliger, vice president of space, space systems engineering and operations for Intelsat, said the cost of servicing is far less than the value of five additional years of satellite service. Waiting five years will also allow Intelsat to replace the 10-02 satellite with a more modern, efficient vehicle. “For us, it’s win-win,” he said during a teleconference with reporters. “This extension for 10-02 is very valuable to us.”
It’s a win for Northrop Grumman as well. The company made history a year ago when its first mission extension vehicle docked with another Intelsat satellite, moved it from a graveyard orbit, powered it on, and placed it back into active service. No two commercial spacecraft had ever docked in orbit before. The difference Monday is that the servicing vehicle docked with an active satellite, in a busier orbit. Both of the mission extension vehicles will detach from their Intelsat targets in 2025 and move on to other satellites and have a functional lifetime until 2035.
Northrop sold the first two mission-extension missions to a commercial customer, Intelsat. However, the company expects that much of its future business may come from governments seeking to protect and extend the life of their most valuable assets in space.
“Government interest is accelerating as they see this capability bearing out,” said Tom Wilson, a vice president at Northrop Grumman, and president of its SpaceLogistics subsidiary. “We’re on the cusp of some bigger initiatives with them.”
This successful second mission suggests that Northrop has taken a first step toward its goal of offering a range of satellite services. It has now demonstrated rendezvous-and-docking, and the ability to deliver power and mobility to satellites. But that’s just the beginning of what is possible with in-orbit servicing, Wilson said.
In 2024, Northrop plans to launch a “Mission Robotic Vehicle” that can provide basic inspection and repair services and deploy mission extension pods to satellites. After this, the company plans to develop refueling capabilities and debris removal from the vicinity of high-value satellites. Finally, in the 2030s, the company intends to begin in-orbit assembly and manufacturing capabilities.
Over the last decade, SpaceX has radically changed the paradigm of launch from that of expendable rockets to a future in which at least the first stages of such boosters are reused. This is lowering the cost of launch and allowing companies to put more and more satellites into various orbits around Earth. As this environment becomes more cluttered, the responsible thing is to more actively refuel, recycle, and dispose of satellites. Northrop Grumman has made meaningful progress toward such a future of satellite servicing. As a result, reusability is now moving into space.