Satellite Servicing Efforts Grapple with the Business Case

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WASHINGTON — Industry and government advocates of on-orbit satellite servicing remain optimistic about the long-term potential of this technology to revolutionize the satellite industry but acknowledge the near-term challenges of building a business case and attracting customers.

“The technology exists today to do on-orbit servicing, even though the client base we’re talking about is not prepared for servicing,” said Benjamin Reed, deputy project manager of the Satellite Servicing Capabilities Office at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, during a session of the Satellite 2013 conference here last month.

That assessment, Reed said, is based on the demonstration of servicing technologies performed by his group’s Robotic Refueling Mission, an experiment mounted on the international space station. In a series of experiments performed through January, engineers have used the station’s Dextre manipulator to demonstrate the ability of a robotic servicing system to refuel a spacecraft. Another set of tasks involving the Robotic Refueling Mission, including removing thermal blankets and electrical caps, is planned for early May, and a “Phase 2” set of experiments will be flown to the station later this year.

NASA’s Robotic Refueling Mission experiment is one of several efforts in satellite servicing that range in complexity from spacecraft that dock with spacecraft and take over propulsion to the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency’s Phoenix program, which seeks to repurpose components from defunct satellites and perform on-orbit assembly of new satellites. All, though, face the challenge of finding customers for their systems.

In 2011, MDA Corp. of Richmond, British Columbia, announced an agreement with fleet operator Intelsat to provide satellite servicing using MDA’s Space Infrastructure Servicing vehicle under development. Less than a year later, though, the companies abandoned the agreement, although MDA continues to pursue work on the servicing vehicle.

“We’re extremely interested in figuring out how to be the provider of this service,” said Steve Oldham, vice president of Information Systems at MDA. A new factor influencing MDA’s plans is their acquisition last year of Palo Alto, Calif.-based Space Systems/Loral, a leading commercial satellite manufacturer. “That gives us the ability to understand the satellite manufacturing market and how it can benefit from satellite servicing,” he said.

ViviSat, a joint venture of ATK and U.S. Space LLC, originally marketed its Mission Extension Vehicle (MEV) as a spacecraft that could take over the propulsion requirements of aging but still functioning satellites. However, James Armor, vice president of strategy and business development for ATK Space Systems, said they have seen interest from potential customers who want to use the MEV as a tug to reposition satellites. ViviSat is now also marketing the MEV as a bus for hosted payloads. “The MEV is a flexible, leased-service satellite utility bus that can serve a dedicated hosted payload mission as well as life extension,” Armor said.

Creating a business case for satellite servicing requires being able to address both a steady stream of satellite life extension customers and those requiring repairs or other servicing. Bryan Benedict, principal program manager for business development at Intelsat General, noted that on average about 10 percent of commercial satellites launched each year encounter problems immediately after launch, such as the failed deployment of antennas or solar panels. Repairing such satellites could be more lucrative than extending the life of other satellites, he said, but identifying specific opportunities is difficult to put into a business plan.

“We have to get to the point where the core business which we can book, life extension, can allow a capability to get into orbit that will be there” when a satellite repair opportunity arises, Benedict said. “That’s the windfall, when you can save a satellite.”

Some of the biggest potential customers of satellite servicing, operators of large fleets of commercial communications satellites, expressed mixed perceptions of the viability of servicing. “We’ve been involved for a while,” said Intelsat Chief Executive David McGlade, a reference to his company’s earlier agreement with MDA, during another Satellite 2013 panel session March 19. Asked if people should be excited about the prospect of satellite servicing, he said, “We hope so.”

Others, though, are more skeptical. “This will not be relevant in the next 10 years,” said Romain Bausch, president and chief executive of SES, on the same panel.

Despite such skepticism, participants on the satellite servicing panel argued that there is growing interest in servicing from the industry. Reed said that insurers in particular are asking him what manufacturers should do to ensure that their satellites could be more easily serviced. Oldham said he has been encouraging engineers at Space Systems/Loral to recognize the benefits and, in his opinion, the inevitability of satellite servicing.

“We don’t believe it’s 10 years from now,” said Benedict. “We really believe it’s going to happen.”