Satellite Service Startups Striving To Get It in Gear

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SAN JOSE, Calif. — For more than decade, Dennis Wingo has been focused on a mission: to establish on-orbit satellite servicing systems capable of adding 10 years to the lifespan of geostationary satellites for one-third the cost of replacing the spacecraft. 

That mission has faced setbacks, ranging from cost and technical challenges to legal hurdles. In 2005, Walter Anderson, the primary investor backing Wingo’s satellite-serving venture, Orbital Recovery Corp., was arrested for failing to pay more than $200 million in taxes. 

Nevertheless, Wingo remains committed to the goal of on-orbit satellite servicing. On July 25 at the Space Frontier Foundation’s NewSpace conference here, Wingo revealed plans for the Spacecraft Life Extension System (SLES), a new venture from his company Skycorp Inc. of Mountain View, Calif. SLES is designed to dock and mate with communications satellites in geostationary orbit to provide attitude control and station-keeping. 

With lessons learned from his previous efforts, Wingo said he has been able to reduce the cost of the system by 50 percent. 

Skycorp’s planned spacecraft, scheduled for first launch in 2016, would weigh approximately 800 kilograms. Wingo declined to offer details of the proposed design, saying his company was seeking patents related to SLES. 

Skycorp has one signed letter of intent to use SLES from a company in the “global satellite communications market,” Wingo said. He declined to name the firm.

Skycorp is not alone in seeking to offer this type of service. With approximately 430 satellites operating in geostationary orbit valued at roughly $20 billion, any firm capable of offering on-orbit services could reap enormous rewards. “Geostationary communications satellites are where the money is,” said James Armor, vice president for strategy and business development of Minneapolis-based Alliant Techsystems (ATK). 

ViviSat, a joint venture of ATK and U.S. Space LLC of Dulles, Va., is developing a satellite-servicing spacecraft called the Mission Extension Vehicle. “We are offering an electronic propulsion jetpack that docks to geostationary communications satellites that are low on fuel or have other orbital difficulties and provide them station-keeping for as long as the client wants to lease the service,” Armor said “So if you’ve got a good satellite that is out of gas, we will dock and take over the orbit maintenance or correct the orbit.”

Over the long term, however, ViviSat has far more ambitious plans. The company is seeking to grow into a solar-system-wide logistics company, capable of servicing spacecraft, hosting payloads, collecting sensor data, exploiting space-based resources and transporting material. “We intend not just to stay with the simple docker to commercial communication satellites, but to add more and more capability with each vehicle we develop: robotic arm, refueling, etc.,” Armor said. “I’m counting on NASA to press the edge of technology so I can transfer that into my logistics company.”

NASA’s Satellite Servicing Capabilities Office (SSCO) at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., has conducted extensive research, development and testing of advanced algorithms designed to enable autonomous rendezvous and capture of spacecraft that were not designed for docking in addition to sophisticated tools to enable refueling and repair of satellites. Benjamin Reed, deputy SSCO program manager, said NASA is seeking to make space-based refueling a viable enterprise. 

In January, controllers at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston used the space station’s two-armed Canadian robot Dextre to cut safety wires, remove caps and transfer ethanol to a mock spacecraft. Later this year, NASA plans to continue working with the Canadian Space Agency, its partner in the Robotic Refueling Mission, to transfer cryogen to the mock spacecraft.

Once NASA proves that its refueling tools and technology work, the space agency plans to transfer that expertise to industry. NASA will “kickstart the industry and commercial partners will pick it up,” Reed said. 

That process is likely to offer significant benefits to the entrepreneurs who move into the market and to NASA. “When I need a weather satellite serviced, if I ever do, I’ll offer to pay someone to give that weather satellite more juice,” Reed said. The private sector will lower the cost of on-orbit servicing and NASA will use those services to promote human exploration of the solar system, Reed added.