Orbital ATK’s giant leap into satellite servicing begins with baby steps

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

Orbital ATK subsidiary SpaceLogistics plans to offer customers a wide range of products and services, beginning with its Mission Extension Vehicle (MEV) and progressing to in-orbit spacecraft assembly, repair and cis-lunar transportation.

Jim Armor, Orbital ATK staff vice president, called the MEV “a baby step” towards satellite servicing.

SpaceLogistics is taking a “keep-it-simple approach” to in-orbit servicing, Joseph Anderson, SpaceLogistics vice president of business development and operations, said. “Our customers are very risk averse. Taking small incremental steps in risk and technology are what they demand.”

SpaceLogistics’ MEV, based on Orbital ATK’s GEOStar satellite bus, is designed to autonomously dock with any spacecraft equipped with a standard liquid apogee engine and launch ring and take over its guidance, navigation and control for accurate pointing and station-keeping, Armor said in late May at the Space Tech Expo in Pasadena, California.

Intelsat, the world’s second-largest satellite fleet operator by revenue, awarded SpaceLogistics contracts for two MEVs. SpaceLogistics has FCC and NOAA licenses and insurance for its first MEV launch, slated to fly in early 2019 as one of two payloads on a Russian Proton rocket booked through U.S.-based International Launch Services, Armor said.

Once in orbit, the MEV will dock with Intelsat-901 satellite in a rendezvous orbit “that is nothing less than a graveyard orbit,” said Jean-Luc Froeliger, Intelsat vice president for satellite operations and engineering. After the two vehicles mate, Intelsat will bring the stack to the communications satellite’s designated slot in geostationary orbit, Froelinger added.

MEV-1 is being built at Orbital ATK’s Dulles, Virginia, factory. Credit: Orbital ATK
MEV-1 is being built at Orbital ATK’s Dulles, Virginia, factory. Credit: Orbital ATK

In 2020, Space Logistics plans to launch a second MEV on Europe’s Ariane 5 rocket to rendezvous with another Intelsat satellite. If the 2019 rendezvous and docking proceeds smoothly, the second MEV will dock with its target satellite in the geostationary belt, Armor said. For the 20230 mission, Intelsat wants “to dock and undock several times during the [five-year contract] so they can do more fleet management,” Armor said.

Bryan Benedict, SES Government Solutions senior director for innovation and satellite programs, lauded Intelsat’s plan to be the first customer for a mission extension service and for conducting the initial rendezvous outside the outside the heavily traveled geostationary belt. “It’s costing them more money to do this demonstration, to be good stewards of geostationary space,” Benedict said at the Space Tech Expo.

SpaceLogistics announced plans in March for its second-generation life extension platform: the Mission Robotic Vehicle, a mothership with a ring of ten to 12 Mission Extension Pods (MEPs). The Mission Robotic Vehicle is designed to come up behind the client satellite and use its robotic arm to install an MEP. MEPs are equipped with Xenon propulsion modules plus the power and communications systems they need to operate.

Once the pods are in place, SpaceLogistics customers will own and operate them, unlike the MEVs, which SpaceLogistics plans to operate as a service for customers. An MEP could extend the life of a 2,000- kilogram communications satellite for five years, Armor said.

Meanwhile, the Mission Robotic Vehicle could perform simple robotic repairs, like releasing a solar array that failed to deploy properly, Anderson said.

SpaceLogistics is investing in technology needed for more complicated tasks, like thorough inspection of satellite exteriors, installing hosted payloads, conducting extensive repairs, capturing spacecraft without launch rings and assembling structures in orbit, Armor said.

On-orbit manufacturing and assembly of large space vehicles is the focus of Commercial Infrastructure for Robotic Assembly and Services (CIRAS), a SpaceLogistics Tipping Point partnership with NASA’s Space Technologies Mission Directorate. Through the Tipping Point program, NASA seeks to spur development of commercial capabilities the space agency will need in the future.

SpaceLogistics plans to conduct a ground demonstration of its CIRAS technology this summer. “After that, we hope to be awarded a follow-on contract to do an in-orbit demonstration,” Anderson said.

In-space transportation is another element of the SpaceLogistics business plan. Future vehicles equipped with highpower solar electric propulsion systems could transport supplies to cis-lunar orbit or other destinations. “We’ll propose for the power and propulsion element of the Lunar Orbital Platform Gateway,” Anderson said. “That is in our technology roadmap.”