Space Drone
Space Drone, a satellite life extension vehicle under development by Effective Space, would attach to communications satellites to take over maneuvering. Credit: Effective Space

WASHINGTON — Effective Space Solutions, a company developing spacecraft that can extend the lives of telecommunications satellites, has arranged to launch its first two spacecraft on a Russian Proton rocket in 2020.

International Launch Services (ILS), the U.S.-based commercial arm of Proton’s manufacturer Khrunichev, is facilitating the launch, ILS announced March 12.

U.K.-based Effective Space is building life-extension spacecraft called Space Drones that have a mass of 400 kilograms each. The two Space Drones launching on Proton will reach orbit via rideshare, piggybacking on a mission with a larger customer, ILS spokesperson Karen Soriano told SpaceNews. She declined to name the primary payload for that mission.

“[T]he announcement of this launch, utilizing the performance of the Proton Breeze M vehicle, is an important milestone for a rapidly developing market, Arie Halsband, Effective Space’s founder and CEO, said in a statement. “ILS worked with us to arrive at a reliable, high performing, cost-effective solution for our business.”

ILS said the launch will carry the Space Drones directly to geostationary orbit, eliminating the spacecraft’s need to spend time and fuel raising their orbits from the typical geostationary transfer orbit drop-off. 

ILS Proton Effective Space Space Drone
Artist’s rendition of an ILS Proton with two Space Drones from Effective Space. Credit: ILS
Artist’s rendition of an ILS Proton with two Space Drones from Effective Space. Credit: ILS

Effective Space will use the Space Drones to perform life extension services for a customer’s two satellites. That unnamed customer is paying around $100 million for multi-year life extension.

The Space Drones work by docking with satellites that are low on propellant and taking over their maneuvering with an electric propulsion system. Space Drones can also move a satellite into a graveyard orbit to retire them safely away from other satellites along the geostationary arc. They can also correct poor orbits for spacecraft with suboptimal launches, according to Effective Space. 

Following this first launch, Effective Space said it plans to orbit up to six Space Drones annually, with future spacecraft assisting low Earth orbit constellations, cleaning up space debris and performing other logistics services.

Effective Space is one of three companies with contracts for life extension with geostationary telecom satellites, joining Orbital ATK and Maxar Technologies. Industry observers say the burgeoning commercial success of satellite servicing is likely fueled by anxiety among fleet operators about procuring new spacecraft. High-throughput satellites offering many times more capacity than earlier generations of satellites, and constellations of numerous smaller satellites in low and medium Earth orbits are forcing satellite operators to consider more variables in their fleet planning.

Last year satellite operators purchased only seven spacecraft on the commercial market, a low point in a three-year trend of satellite orders averaging below the 20 or more norm.

Caleb Henry is a former SpaceNews staff writer covering satellites, telecom and launch. He previously worked for Via Satellite and NewSpace Global.He earned a bachelor’s degree in political science along with a minor in astronomy from...