PONTE VEDRA, Fla. — An Israeli startup founded by a former Israel Aerospace Industries space division manager says it is ready to field a microsatellite able to attach to satellites in incorrect orbits and put them into operating position, or extend the lives of satellites running low on fuel.
Tel Aviv-based Effective Space Solutions (EFS), founded only in 2012, went so far on Aug. 25 as to say its DeOrbiter could salvage the European Galileo positioning, navigation and timing satellites in a useless orbit after an Aug. 22 failure of a Europeanized Soyuz rocket’s Fregat upper stage.
The provocative statement, the company said, follows a meeting with insurers in London that company Chief Executive Arie Halsband said concluded that the DeOrbiter hardware’s operations “are insurable,” Halsband said Aug. 28 in response to SpaceNews questions. “We might include an in-orbit demonstration if needed.”
The first DeOrbiter could be ready in 18 months, the company said.
EFS is not alone among satellite-servicing proponents eying the stranded-but-healthy Galileo satellites as ideal targets for a robotic rescue.
The second-in-command of a NASA Goddard Space Flight Center office that has been practicing satellite-refueling operations through a series of ground- and international space station-based demonstrations, is paying close attention as the Galileo story unfolds.
“We continue to read the public news reports with interest,” Benjamin Reed, NASA’s Satellite Servicing Capabilities Office deputy project manager, said Aug. 28 via email.
The 250-kilogram DeOrbiter, using ion-electric propulsion, is designed to perform multiple missions — more than 20, the company says — attaching a detaching from target satellites before being retired.
EFS was founded by Halsband in 2012 and was incorporated in 2013 after an initial fundraising round. By space industry standards, the company has invested the modest sum of $1.5 million so far, from government and private sources.
The spacecraft is built to attach itself to any satellite, preferably those with standard interface rings common to telecommunications spacecraft.
While the Galileo orbit-injection failure allowed EFS to ride a publicity wave, the principal mission of DeOrbiter is to extend the life of otherwise healthy satellites, mainly in geostationary orbit 36,000 kilometers over the equator, where commercial telecommunications satellites operate.
EFS is not the first company to attempt to crack what some satellite operators believe could be a profitable niche market. Satellite fleet operator Intelsat of Luxembourg and Washington, which has a fleet of 50 spacecraft, agreed to be the anchor customer for Canada-based MDA Corp.’s attempt to develop a space tug.
ViviSat of the United States, a joint venture of U.S. Space and ATK, has a similar idea in development.
One drawback to previous attempts at a satellite-servicing vehicle is that it would need to perform multiple satellite refueling or life-extension missions to reduce the per-satellite cost to customers. For commercial satellite operators, many of the best candidate satellites for in-orbit servicing are those that are almost fully depreciated, having served their planned 15 years in orbit. Many no longer carry insurance, and operators have said they would need to examine the legal liability issues surrounding any attempt to rendezvous in or near geostationary orbit.
Others have said the U.S. Defense Department, which occasionally launches satellites valued at up to $1 billion, would be the most logical early customer. But U.S. military authorities have yet to agree to be the test customer for any of the satellite-servicing ventures announced.
The German space agency, DLR, continues development of its DEOS satellite servicing and debris-removal technology, and the 20-nation European Space Agency has funded several design studies of different techniques to harpoon, net or otherwise capture an uncooperative target.
Staff Writer Dan Leone contributed to this report from Washington.