MDA Designing In-orbit Servicing Spacecraft

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DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — Canada’s MDA Corp., which has a well-established record in space robotics, is designing a satellite-servicing demonstration to refuel spacecraft in orbit and, when necessary, to push dead satellites into graveyard orbits, an MDA official said March 3.

The company is prepared to finance the first mission at least in part on its own. MDA has signed an option with an unidentified satellite fleet operator that has agreed to provide an aging telecommunications spacecraft for a refueling operation as the inaugural customer, according to Logan Duffield, vice president for strategic business development of MDA Information Systems.

Richmond, British Columbia-based MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates (MDA) has long built robotic manipulator systems for the U.S. space shuttle and international space station.

In a presentation here to the World Space Risk Forum, Duffield said the company has spent some $3 billion over the years on robotics, with a quarter of that investment applicable to in-orbit servicing missions.

As explained by Duffield, the refueling vehicle would dock at the target satellite’s apogee-kick motor, peel off a section of the craft’s thermal protection blanket, connect to a fuel-pressure line and deliver the propellant. MDA officials estimate the docking maneuver would take the communications satellite out of service for about 20 minutes.

The business model, which is still evolving, could ask customers to pay per kilogram of fuel successfully added to their satellite, with the per-kilogram price being a function of the additional revenue the operator can expect to generate from the spacecraft’s extended operational life, Duffield said.

The servicing robot would have an in-orbit life of about five years, and would carry enough fuel to perform 10 or 11 satellite-refueling or orbital-cleanup missions. Duffield declined to disclose the approximate cost of the mission.

Extending the life of commercial satellites that cost upward of $300 million to build and launch, and generate $100 million in annual revenue is an idea that has appealed to satellite operators for years. But none has pursued the idea sufficiently to invest in it. The German space agency, DLR, recently announced preliminary contracts to develop a similar service, but as yet has not agreed to finance an orbital demonstration mission.

Steve Oldham, MDA general manager for satellite missions and robotics, said March 4 that the company is talking to customers that, taken together, could provide sufficient demand to sell out the first mission. “We are also looking at a variety of financing options based on these customers’ needs and the resulting business plan,” he said. “We expect to conclude this is the next few months.”

MDA has not committed itself to building the demonstration mission yet, pending the conclusion of these negotiations. Oldham declined to discuss the robot’s design, but said it would have deployable solar arrays and be capable of delivering enough fuel to provide an aggregate 50 years of additional life to satellites per mission, assuming a standard communications satellite uses around 30 kilograms of fuel per year once in geostationary orbit.

Any in-orbit servicing mission raises numerous insurance issues, starting with who carries responsibility for any collision that might result. Whoever it is — MDA or the customer whose satellite is damaged — likely will seek to transfer that risk to insurers.

Adam Sturmer, vice president at Marsh Space Projects, one of the world’s three principal space-insurance brokers, said that in the last four years, insurance underwriters have paid out some $700 million in claims for satellite failures caused by propulsion-leak issues or due to the satellites being placed into too-low orbits. In either case, in-orbit servicing could have sizable appeal to operators or underwriters.

Dominique Rora, a space risk underwriter at Axa Corporate Solutions, questioned whether a satellite’s fuel valves — designed to be opened on the ground and then closed forever — could be reopened in orbit. “After 15 years of thermal cycling in orbit, can they still be reopened?” Rora asked.

Concerning who takes responsibility for any accidents occurring during the servicing mission, Rora said the commercial maritime industry may serve as an example. During tugboat operations at sea, it is the ship owner that retains responsibility for any accidents involving the tug or the ship it is pulling, he said.

Another issue, Rora said, is the reliability of satellite components after more than 15 years in orbit, the standard service life of today’s satellites.

“Will the rest of the satellite survive so much longer than 15 years? We don’t have much information on this as satellites are fully amortized after 15 years and they have no more book value. As for a salvage operation, we would need the satellite’s owner, and all the satellite’s insurers, to agree on such an attempt. Either we don’t take the risk, or the cost-benefit must be so clear as to be beyond discussion. We don’t want to throw good money after bad.”