European Space Agency overhauls satellite servicer program

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WASHINGTON — A European Space Agency satellite-deorbiting program that’s been struggling to gain traction with its member states and with industry has been redesigned to be more appealing.

ESA is seeking to revive its e.Deorbit program from 2013 by expanding the mission beyond deorbiting a single satellite. Furthermore, the agency is not stipulating that the mission deorbit Envisat, an ESA Earth-observation satellite that shut down unexpectedly in 2012.

In a Dec. 21 website post, ESA said a series of studies concluded that widening the scope of the e.Deorbit mission to include more functions such as in-orbit refuel or repair would make it more feasible.

“It took so many advanced technologies to make such an act of active debris removal possible that the possibility is there to apply it to a recurrent space servicing [vehicle] design,” the agency wrote.

ESA hopes the new servicer would have commercial utility — an angle that could form a new competitor for servicers under development in the U.S.

Northrop Grumman Innovation Systems intends to launch a servicer called Mission Extension Vehicle 1 on a Russian Proton rocket from International Launch Services next year. Maxar Technologies is developing the Robotic Servicing of Geosynchronous Satellites vehicle with the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency for launch in 2021.

ESA said 13 companies sent proposals for the new program, which is only open to member states and Canada, which has a cooperative agreement.

Jan Woerner, ESA’s director general, said that list has been narrowed to six, and will be further whittled down to two before the agency tries again to obtain member-state funding at its tri-annual ministerial conference coming up this November. ESA did not respond to SpaceNews inquiries regarding whether the agency will choose more than one winner.

In a Dec. 7 presentation at a Secure World Foundation event here, Woerner said ESA is prepared to pay a company to deorbit one of the agency’s satellites, but on the condition that the company create a viable business plan that does not rely on continued funding from ESA.

“They should do additional servicing, and we will not pay for it,” Woerner said. “They have to look for someone else to pay for it. It is a different kind of procurement. It is not only a public-private partnership; it is giving more responsibility to the company.”

Woerner said ESA is not telling bidders what type of service they should conduct after completing the agency’s deorbit assignment, only that the servicer should do more than the initial mission. He declined to say how much ESA would pay the chosen firm to deorbit one of the agency’s satellites.

Woerner said ESA is resisting the urge to “not to fall into the trap of defining each and every single color of the screws” as the program develops, but instead give industry freer rein over how they choose to proceed.

For industry, he said, it is proving similarly difficult to contemplate an ESA mission where success is defined not only by accomplishing the mission, but continuing commercially thereafter.

“Immediately some of the companies asked how much money will we get afterwards and we said zero,” Woerner said. “You have to give an offer where you bring down our satellite — for that we will pay you. But you have to show us that you have afterwards a business case and make something out of it.”

Companies competing for the ESA contract must choose a target satellite over 100 kilograms in mass that wouldn’t naturally fall into Earth’s atmosphere within five years, Woerner said.

ESA is also stipulating that should a company choose a geosynchronous satellite, they must do more than move it a few hundred kilometers above the geosynchronous arc, a region commonly referred to as the “graveyard orbit.” Woerner said he is not a fan of this approach.

Woerner acknowledged that since geosynchronous orbit is 36,000 kilometers above the Earth, it will be more difficult to bring a satellite into Earth’s atmosphere or send it much farther away, but those are the options.

“I don’t like graveyard orbits,” he said. “It’s not like a graveyard on Earth where after some time you can use the same place again. Therefore we said no, [they must] deorbit.”

Woerner said for a geostationary satellite, the company has to move the satellite “down to Earth or really out.”