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, a U.K.-headquartered company developing spacecraft to extend the life of communications satellites, announced Jan. 17 that it has signed its first contract with an undisclosed customer.

Effective Space said the contract, with a “major regional satellite operator,” covers the launch of two of its Space Drone satellite life extension vehicles in 2020, which will dock with two of the customer’s existing satellites to provide stationkeeping and attitude control capabilities. The company said the multi-year contract has a total value of more than $100 million.

In an interview, Daniel Campbell, managing director of Effective Space, declined to name the customer or even the region that operator serves, citing confidentiality provisions in the agreement. “The nature of the region that they cover is very competitive, and they see the life extension as a real advantage with their customers for the next few years,” he said.

Space Drone is a 400-kilogram spacecraft designed to dock with existing satellites that are running low on fuel but are otherwise operational. The spacecraft, launched as a secondary payload, uses electric propulsion to maneuver to its target satellite, attaching to the satellite’s launch vehicle interface ring. The Space Drone then takes over the maneuvering of the satellite, either for long-term operations or short-term activities, such as moving the satellite into a graveyard orbit at the end of the satellite’s life.

The unnamed customer is one of several that Effective Space had signed letters of intent with over the last two years. Discussions with several other potential customers are ongoing, Campbell said, but the company’s near-term focus will be on this first customer.

The Space Drone vehicle itself is at the preliminary design stage of development, with a critical design review planned in the near future. “Major systems, including docking, are in a much more advanced state,” he said. Effective Space is also in negotiations with potential suppliers and in the “final stage” of negotiations with a launch provider.

The company is raising a Series B round of funding this year. Campbell declined to disclose the amount the company is looking to raise, but said it would be sufficient to take the company through the first Space Drone launches and beginning of revenue service from them.

Effective Space was founded in 2013 by Arie Halsband, the general manager of the space division of Israel Aerospace Industries. Effective Space maintains a research and development center in Tel Aviv, but Campbell said the company set up operations in the United Kingdom for several reasons, including the presence of a network of suppliers and a trained workforce.

He also cited the British regulatory system and support from the government as another reason for operating from the country. “When we talk with customers, they know we have someone behind us that, throughout the next two years, will bridge any remaining gaps in the framework,” he said.

Effective Space is not the first company to pursue satellite life extension systems like this. Space Logistics LLC, a subsidiary of Orbital ATK, is offering the Mission Extension Vehicle (MEV) that, like Effective Space’s Space Drone, will attach to satellites to take over maneuvering. The first MEV is scheduled for launch late this year to service the Intelsat-901 satellite, and Orbital ATK announced a contract Jan. 4 to build a second MEV, also to service an Intelsat satellite, that would enter service in mid-2020.

Campbell said Effective Space expects to compete with Orbital ATK on price. “What we see as a major advantage is the cost structure,” he said, citing the smaller size of the Space Drone and the ability to utilize secondary payload options, but didn’t go into details about how much less expensive a Space Drone would be compared to an MEV.

The real competition, he said, was a replacement satellite that an operator would order rather than extending the life of an existing spacecraft. “You have to come up with a very strict cost structure” to be competitive with replacement satellites, he said.

The presence of two companies offering similar services has helped demonstrate the validity of the satellite life extension concept, he argued. “The fact that there are two options on the table, from the operators’ perspective, allows us to move faster,” he said. “It helped to educate the market.”

Changes in the overall communications satellite market have also helped the company, he said, because operators are reticent to buy new satellites as they watch the development of high-throughput satellites and low Earth orbit constellations like OneWeb. “Any operator who can win some additional life, from now until 2025, are actively pursuing at least mission analysis with us,” he said. “That’s a major shift.”

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...