Airbus impressed by Northrop Grumman, but remains undecided on satellite servicing 

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WASHINGTON —  Airbus Defence and Space wanted to launch a satellite servicer shortly after Northrop Grumman launched MEV-1, but backed away from those plans two years ago because of uncertainty about the commercial market. 

Northrop Grumman’s Mission Extension Vehicle 1 launched in October and docked with the Intelsat-901 communications satellite in February, paving the way for a five-year extended lease on life. 

Airbus Defence and Space is “really excited to see what Northrop is doing” with MEV-1 to gauge whether satellite servicing is a viable business that Airbus ought also pursue, Oliver Juckenhöfel, Airbus Defence and Space’s senior vice president of on-orbit services and exploration, said March 9. 

“We still have in the drawers what we were doing in 2018 and we are able to ramp them up again if necessary,” he said during a press conference at the Satellite 2020 conference here. 

Airbus was preparing a satellite servicer based on the Eurostar Neo platform it uses as the basis for some telecommunications satellites, Juckenhöfel said. The servicer would have used all-electric propulsion and “robotic elements” to grab other satellites for refueling, he said. 

“It was a very nice design — technically feasible — but we had significant questions on the overall business case,” Juckenhöfel said. 

Airbus halted work on the servicer after reaching a preliminary design review, he said. 

“We feel it’s better not to be the first, in this particular case,” Juckenhöfel said. “We are watching it, but undecided.”

Frank DeMauro, Northrop Grumman Space Systems’ vice president and general manager for Tactical Space Systems, said on a panel March 10 that MEV-1 is in the process of moving Intelsat-901 to its orbital slot. The combined stack — MEV-1 controls Intelsat-901 — should arrive at 332.5 degrees east by the end of March, he said, where it can cover both American continents, Africa and Europe. 

Transferring traffic from the ageing Intelsat-907 over to Intelsat-901 will take a few days to a week, he said, with full service starting in the “first half of April if not sooner.”

Northrop Grumman has a second MEV that DeMauro said launches in June. Intelsat is also the customer for that servicer, which launches on an Ariane 5. Each MEV has a 15-year design life, enabling extension missions for multiple spacecraft.

For Airbus to resurrect its servicer program would require a sizeable financial investment that Juckenhöfel declined to quantify. 

A significant determining factor is launch pricing, which Juckenhöfel said adds too much cost for satellite servicing to be feasible in Airbus’ eyes, especially as communications satellites get cheaper. 

Other spacecraft manufacturers have flirted with the idea of satellite servicing. 

Thales Alenia Space said last year it would build a satellite servicer provided it could land a government customer to anchor the program

Maxar Technologies was selected to build a servicer for the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, but relinquished the program in early 2019. DARPA later selected Northrop Gruman to continue that program, known as the Robotic Servicing of Geosynchronous Satellites.