Northrop Grumman to launch new satellite-servicing mission in 2024

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The first customer for the Mission Robotic Vehicle is Optus, Australia’s largest satellite operator

WASHINGTON — SpaceLogistics, a satellite-servicing firm owned by Northrop Grumman, announced Feb. 21 it plans to send to orbit a new servicing vehicle in 2024 on a SpaceX rocket.

This will be the debut of the company’s Mission Robotic Vehicle, a servicing spacecraft equipped with a robotic arm that will install propulsion jet packs on dying satellites. The first customer for the MRV is Optus, Australia’s largest satellite operator.

SpaceLogistics vice president Joseph Anderson told SpaceNews that the MRV was built with many of the same technologies used in the company’s Mission Extension Vehicles. Two MEVs are in orbit currently providing station-keeping services for two Intelsat geostationary satellites that were running low on fuel.

The MRV’s robotic arm was developed by the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory with funding from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. DARPA in 2020 signed an agreement with Northrop Grumman allowing the company to use the robotic payload on the MRV in exchange for access to technology demonstrations and program data. 

The MRV and three propulsion jet packs — known as Mission Extension Pods — are now being assembled at Northrop Grumman’s facility in Dulles, Virginia. Anderson said all three pods will launch in 2024 with the MRV — one will be installed on an Optus satellite and the other two are for other customers that have not yet been announced. 

The MEPs are propulsion devices designed to extend the service life of a 2,000 kilogram satellite by six years. 

The mission in 2024 will launch the MRV — a 3,000 kilogram spacecraft — and three MEPs, each about 400 kilograms. The MRV and MEPs will be released from the launch vehicle, independently deploy and raise themselves to a geostationary orbit using solar electric propulsion.

Once in orbit each MEP is captured by the MRV and stowed for transport to the client satellite. The MRV rendezvous and docks with the client to install the MEP, which operates like an auxiliary propulsion device and uses its own thrusters to maneuver the client vehicle. Then the MRV detaches itself and moves on to grab another MEP for the next customer. The MRV is designed to stay in orbit for 10 years. 

Anderson said the company expects to install as many as 30 propulsion pods over the life of the MRV. 

“Our manifest for the MRV is full through mid 2026,” he said. Besides Optus, five other customers have signed term sheets to purchase mission extension pods. 

The company is not disclosing the price of its MRV services. It’s a different service than the MEV, Anderson explained. The MEP is sold as a product. “Part of that purchase price includes the installation in orbit, and we use our mission robotic vehicle to do that installation.” SpaceLogistics owns the robotic vehicle but the mission extension pod is owned and operated by the client.

The MRV uses the same sensor technologies, the same rendezvous and proximity operations concepts developed for the MEV, said Anderson. “We removed the docking mechanism and replaced it with the robotic payload from DARPA,” he added. “And the way we attach the MEP to the client vehicle with a docking mechanism, that also has direct heritage and from the mission extension vehicle.”

The MEV and MRV will service satellites in geosynchronous orbit. SpaceLogistics has no plans currently to provide services in low Earth orbit, although it might consider opportunities in debris removal. 

“Certainly there’s a significant debris issue in low Earth orbit that one day will need to be addressed,” said Anderson. “Everything we’re doing today for satellite servicing in GEO can be directly applied to debris mitigation in low Earth orbit or to other services there, if and when customers decide to pay for those types of services.”