The view from Northrop Grumman’s MEV-2 spacecraft as it approached the dock of the Intelsat IS-10-02 satellite.
Two aerospace companies first reached an industry on Monday when a small Northrop Grumman spacecraft successfully docked with an active Intelsat satellite to provide services and extend its lifespan.
Intelsat’s IS-10-02 satellite is nearly 18 years old and is operating well beyond its expected lifespan. However, the Northrop Grumman-built spacecraft MEV-2 will extend IS-10-02 for another five years and essentially refuel the satellite and give it a new engine to control.
The companies have reached a milestone in the growing business of servicing satellites in space.
“Today’s successful docking of our second Mission Extension Vehicle further demonstrates the reliability, safety and usefulness of in-space logistics,” said Tom Wilson, vice president of Northrop Grumman’s strategic space systems, in a statement. “The success of this mission paves the way for our second generation of satellite and robotic services and offers both commercial and government satellite operators flexibility and resilience, which can enable entirely new classes of missions.”
A close look at Intelsat’s IS-10-02 satellite as the MEV-2 approached docking in orbit.
Extending the life of an active spacecraft in orbit has previously only been accomplished with human help – for example, the Hubble telescope maintenance missions carried out by NASA astronauts.
The MEV-2 robot was launched on an Arianespace Ariane 5 rocket in August and has been traveling to the satellite in recent months. MEV-2 then adjusted to its orbit before successfully docking, while also providing unique images of the satellite as the spacecraft approached.
Introduced in June 2004, IS-10-02 should have been in operation for only 13 years and provide broadband communications services to Europe, South America, Africa and the Middle East. The satellite is in a fixed position above the earth in what is known as geosynchronous orbit – tens of thousands of kilometers high to provide the broadest possible coverage area.
The MEV-2 mission builds on the success of Northrop Grumman’s MEV-1 mission last year, which was docked with an inactive Intelsat satellite. This satellite was in “cemetery orbit” which meant it was no longer serving, but MEV-1 restored it and brought the satellite back into position.
While similar to MEV-1, the MEV-2 spacecraft went a step further by docking and extending the life of a currently operating satellite. This means that there is a higher risk as IS-10-02 serves customers, including the provision of television services to more than 18 million households in Europe.
Northern Sky Research, a satellite consultancy firm, estimates the satellite services and life extension market offers a $ 3.2 billion opportunity over the next decade.
The company predicts that more than 75 satellites will need servicing by 2030, with companies and governments trying to extend the life of typically expensive geosynchronous equatorial orbit satellites rather than launching replacements.