Industry weighs government’s role in satellite servicing

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WASHINGTON — With the first commercial satellite servicing spacecraft about to launch, industry executives argue that government agencies, primarily seen as developers of key servicing technologies, also need to be customers of those systems.

The Mission Extension Vehicle (MEV) 1, developed by SpaceLogistics, a subsidiary of Northrop Grumman, is set to launch on a Proton rocket Oct. 9 from Baikonur, Kazakhstan. The spacecraft is dual-manifested on the Proton with the Northrop-built Eutelsat 5 West B communications satellite.

Northrop had hoped to have MEV-1 in orbit by now, but the Proton launch, previously scheduled for Sept. 30, was postponed by an issue discovered during electrical testing of the vehicle, according to launch services provider International Launch Services. That is, though, a small delay in a project that’s been years in the making.

“I’ve been working on this for about a decade,” said Joe Anderson, vice president of operations and business development at SpaceLogistics, during an Oct. 1 satellite servicing forum held by the Consortium for Execution of Rendezvous and Servicing Operations (CONFERS) here.

Once launched, MEV-1 will use its electric propulsion system to go to geostationary orbit, a process that will take up to three and a half months, Anderson said. It will rendezvous there with the Intelsat 901, an 18-year-old satellite in an inclined geosynchronous orbit. The satellite will raise its orbit to a “graveyard” orbit a few hundred kilometers above GEO prior to MEV-1 arrival to avoid any interference with other satellites in GEO.

MEV-1 will dock with the apogee kick motor nozzle on Intelsat 901, at which point it takes over the attitude control and orbit control. MEV-1 will then move Intelsat 901 into its new operational location in GEO over the Atlantic Ocean, remaining attached for five years before moving the satellite into the graveyard orbit and undocking.

At that point, Anderson said, MEV-1 will be available for additional customers. The spacecraft has a 15-year design life with propellant “well beyond” that. A second such spacecraft, MEV-2, is under construction, while SpaceLogistics has plans for additional servicing vehicles, including Mission Extension Pods that can be attached to satellites by a separate vehicle.

While the emphasis on both MEV and other concepts has been on the technology to extend the lives or otherwise service satellites, a key aspect is the business case for such systems. “It’s not an innovation until you’ve converted it from an idea, from an invention, into an economic return,” Anderson said. “I’m not aware of any economic returns yet in this industry, but we are days away from that occurring.”

The question some in the industry have, though, is how much of an economic return will be available. Ventures that had planned to rely on GEO satellites may have to reconsider their plans given the weakening demand for commercial GEO satellite communications.

“This is an idea which is not going away, but what changes and maybe does go away is the business case for part of the market,” said Bryan Benedict, a senior director at SES Government Solutions. He cited a “huge decay” in the value of GEO satellites in the last few years as bandwidth prices have dropped as well as other complicating factors, like potential transfer of C-band satellite spectrum. “It’s still a great idea, but it’s a much tougher business case now.”

Some are looking to the government to be a customer for commercial satellite servicing systems. Joshua Davis of the Aerospace Corporation said his organization has a contract with SpaceLogistics to examine the potential of using that company’s vehicles to service national security satellites at or beyond their end of their lives. “The U.S. government is currently trying to be a customer to this industry,” he said.

If the U.S. government does become a customer, it needs to avoid imposing too many unique requirements, other conference panelists argued. “It has to be done in a way that opens markets. In other words, the government shouldn’t be seeking bespoke applications,” said Bhavya Lal of the Science and Technology Policy Institute. “Buy services rather than technologies.”

Companies that appear too closely tied to the U.S. government, Davis said, might have problems winning business from companies or organizations in other countries. “We’re trying very hard to make sure that our commercial companies are able to contract with our allies and with international companies,” he said. “But this market is in its infancy and it’s going to be very difficult to figure out how to allow U.S. technologies to be used to benefit other nations.”

The government is continuing to support technology development for satellite servicing. DARPA’s Robotic Servicing of Geosynchronous Satellites (RSGS) program is pressing ahead despite a decision by the agency’s original industry partner, Maxar, to drop out early this year because the business case for it was no longer adequate.

Joseph Parrish, the DARPA RSGS program manager, said the agency is still in source selection for a new partner, and because of that could not go into details about the agency’s plans, but expected to make that selection before the end of the year.

He was optimistic about the program. “I’m standing here with a smile on my face. The program is moving forward,” he said. The goal remains, he said, to allow that commercial partner to use the system “for fun and profit” once the servicing technology is demonstrated.

NASA’s Restore-L satellite servicing program is taking a different tack. That mission, being developed by Maxar under a NASA contract, will demonstrate the ability to refuel “legacy” satellites, with the Landsat-7 spacecraft the planned target of that demonstration.

“Restore-L is not a Landsat-7 rescue mission,” said Ben Reed, deputy director of the satellite servicing projects division at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. “We are using it as a testbed to bring to operational status legacy refueling.”

NASA, he added, doesn’t plan to remain in the satellite servicing business once Restore-L demonstrates that technology. “We’ve got too many other things on our plate, like finding life on another planet.”