Orbital ATK, SSL and others are gearing up to make house calls to ailing satellites

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This article originally appeared in the June 4, 2018 issue of SpaceNews magazine.

In five to 10 years, space experts think on-orbit servicing will become so common that satellites will be designed for towing, repairs or refueling.

“Once the technical risk is retired, more people will contract for mission extension or on-orbit servicing, which will bring the price down,” Jean-Luc Froeliger, Intelsat vice president for satellite operations and engineering, said at the Space Tech Expo in Pasadena, California, in late May. “I expect a snowball effect.”

Satellite owners, satellite manufacturers, NASA and DARPA are planning a series of demonstrations to prove spacecraft can be repaired or refueled in orbit without the type of ambitious and expensive effort NASA devoted to servicing the Hubble Space Telescope.

The two largest geostationary communications satellite fleet operators, SES and Intelsat, are taking different approaches to satellite life extension. Intelsat awarded contracts to Orbital ATK subsidiary SpaceLogistics for two Mission Extension Vehicles, slated to launch in 2019 and 2020. The Mission Extension Vehicles will dock with the client vehicles and keep them in their proper orbits for five years, Froelinger said.

SES, in contrast, is hiring Space Systems Loral to refuel propellant tanks on one of its geostationary communications satellites with a robotic vehicle SSL plans to launch in 2021. SSL also is working with NASA on Restore-L, a mission to refuel the Landsat -7 Earth-observation satellite, and with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency to send a mobile servicing vehicle into geostationary orbit through the Robotic Servicing of Geosynchronous Satellites program.

“In the near to medium term, life extension will break down barriers to entry, allow existing operators to expand their markets and potentially allowing new operators to enter the market by lowering the cost of performing services,” said Joe Anderson, SpaceLogistics vice president of business development and operations. “Longer term, as we implement in-orbit assembly, in-orbit construction capabilities, it will change the paradigm on how satellites are built.”

Technicians at Orbital ATK put Mission Extension Vehicle-related hardware through its paces. Credit: Orbital ATK
Technicians at Orbital ATK put Mission Extension Vehicle-related hardware through its paces. Credit: Orbital ATK

NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, in preparation for the Restore-L mission, has spent nearly a decade developing and testing the tools and sensors to repair and refuel satellites that were not designed for servicing.

“The goal is to mature technology needed to service satellites so the government can then transfer that technology to industry and retire some of the risk for those missions,” Brian Roberts, a robotic technologist in Goddard’s Satellite Servicing Projects Division, said at the Space Tech Expo.

NASA is intent on satellite servicing as a way to extend the life of its spacecraft and to clear the way for deep space exploration. The “Holy Grail” is getting to the point where spacecraft can repair themselves, Roberts said. Having a way to “assemble other modules or make repairs on the way to Mars is where NASA is headed,” he added.

Satellite owner-operators want the flexibility various life extension schemes offer.

“The goal of life extension is not to take a 15-year satellite and make it last for 30,” said Bryan Benedict, SES Government Solutions senior director of innovation and satellite programs. “The goal is to be able to better accommodate the unknown.”

In some cases, a communications satellite customer might not be willing to sign a 15-year contract but would agree to three more years of service. Servicing vehicles also could tow dead spacecraft out of geostationary orbit or free solar arrays or antennas that do not deploy properly, Benedict said at the Space Tech Expo.

In addition, satellite builders might streamline some pre-launch activities if they knew repairs could be performed in orbit.

“A lot of time is spent on the ground making sure a satellite is going to work 1,000 percent of the time,” Roberts said. “If satellite servicing was more available, you may not spend as much time integrating the satellite on the ground and testing it to the nth degree, which might allow you to launch science satellites on a more frequent cadence.”