Servicing commercial satellites have until now not been a possibility for private companies. After a satellite completes its service lifespan or if it experiences orbital troubles it will simply enter Earth’s atmosphere and burn up or remain in orbit as space junk. For the first time, private companies may be able to service faulty satellites and extend their lifespan. Two commercial satellites have docked in space for the first time, spearheading the satellite servicing industry.
Joe Anderson, vice president at Space Logistics said in a press conference that “this is the first time in history, a docking has ever been performed with a satellite that was not pre-designed with docking in mind. This is the first time two commercial satellites have ever docked.”
Northrop Grumman’s Mission Extension Vehicle (MEV-1) docked with a communications satellite, Intelsat 901 on February 25th 2020. Space Logistics is a subsidiary of Northrup Grumman.
The mission was to refuel the Intelsat 901, which would lose all communication with the crew if it ran out of fuel and would not be controllable from the ground. It was taken on several years ago and has been in planning and construction phases, as a new satellite was built to launch and deliver the fuel. The additional fuel extends Intelsat’s lifespan by another five years.
The MEV-1 was already launched in October 2019, meaning it took about three months to manoeuvre around the globe in its orbit in such a way as to make docking viable. The satellites met up in what’s called a “graveyard orbit,” which is a place where defunct satellites are put so that they won’t interfere with active satellites. The navigation and steering will now be done by MEV-1 while the satellites are still connected.
Once the additional five years of service by the Intelsat is complete, MEV-1 will move it back to the graveyard orbit where it will be decommissioned. Potentially, MEV-1 could then move on to service another satellite.
There is another mission planned, MEV-2, that will also service an Intelsat satellite and will launch later this year. Northrup Grumman is also busy working on its next-generation fleet of satellite servicing robots, which will have smaller Mission Extension Pods. They are being designed to offer smaller fixes to satellites.
Increasing the lifespan of satellites is a novel and important step in curbing our space junk in orbit and making future missions easier to complete.