WASHINGTON — Orbital ATK almost two years ago struck a groundbreaking deal with Intelsat to add years of service life to an aging communications satellite. The companies on Thursday announced they are solidifying their partnership with a second contract to service another satellite.
Orbital’s first “mission extension vehicle” known as MEV-1 is scheduled to launch later this year on a Proton rocket from International Launch Services. In a vote of confidence, Intelsat has signed an order for a second vehicle, the MEV-2.
“The first vehicle is progressing quite well,” Tom Wilson, president of Orbital ATK’s Space Logistics subsidiary told SpaceNews. “We’re really excited about Intelsat making a move to want a second one.”
Intelsat had hinted about a second MEV order back in July when the operator suggested in a quarterly earnings call that MEVs would service not one, but two wide-band satellites. The first MEV should be up and running in 2019, extending the life of the Intelsat-901 satellite for five years. The MEV-2 is expected to be in service by mid-2020 on a five-year mission. Intelsat spokesperson Shannon Booker declined to say which satellite MEV-2 will service.
Wilson said additional customers are forthcoming. “We’ve got interest from across the industry in additional vehicles,” he said. “I don’t think this is the last one you’re going to see.”
The MEV-1 is nearly complete and the manufacturing of the second one is already under way, Wilson said. The launch date of MEV-1 will be announced in four to five months.
Once the 4,500-pound vehicle reaches orbit, it will dock with the similarly-sized Intelsat-901 in a “graveyard” orbit about 300 miles above the geostationary arc to conduct tests and make sure everything works before the satellite is put back to work in a yet-to-be stated orbital slot.
A modified version of the GEOStar platform Orbital uses for telecommunications satellites is the base for the MEVs. With its docking system, an MEV attaches to a customer’s satellite and extends its service life by taking over the orbit maintenance and attitude control functions. Each MEV has a 15-year design life and is designed to perform dozens of dockings and re-positionings during its life span.
Ken Lee, Intelsat’s senior vice president of space systems, said the company is a strong proponent of mission extension technology as a way to generate more value from satellites in orbit and direct capital to new satellites.
The satellite that will be serviced by the MEV-1 is about 18 years old and running out of propellant. Otherwise, it is “electronically very healthy,” said Wilson. “And the services that it offers are still required by a lot of Intelsat’s traditional customers.”
If something were to go wrong with the satellite, the MEV can take it back to graveyard, drop it off, undock from it and go dock with another Intelsat satellite, said Wilson. “That’s part of the benefit of our system. If there’s an issue with one satellite, we can go to another within their fleet of satellites that are running low on fuel.”
Orbital ATK manufactures MEV components in San Diego and Goleta, California. A “rendezvous, proximity operations and docking” laboratory in Dulles, Virginia, is where the company tests the sensors, actuators and control algorithms that allow the MEV to approach and dock with the client spacecraft.
The timing to start offering in-space servicing is good for companies like Orbital ATK. Operators have for the past three years ordered fewer geostationary satellites amid uncertainty about the future of the business. Satellite firms are investing in new technologies such as high-throughput spot beams, smallsat constellations and electric propulsion but they also believe there are profits to be made from the assets they already have in orbit.
Wilson said the MEV design is compatible with 80 percent of commercial communications satellites currently in geosynchronous Earth orbit.
Compared to the first vehicle, the MEV-2 will have new bells and whistles. It will be equipped to carry hosted payloads from commercial companies and small satellites that could be deployed for science missions.
At the upcoming Satellite 2018 tradeshow in Washington, D.C., Orbital ATK plans to roll out its next-generation servicing vehicle, a space robot that will be able to perform more complex tasks. “A whole bunch of new robotic capability is coming on line with our next-generation system,” Wilson said.
Orbital ATK’s main competitor in this sector, Maxar Technologies’ SSL division, is also developing space robotic servicing vehicles for NASA and for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.
The NASA vehicle, called Restore- L, is set for a 2020 launch, and will refuel satellites in low-Earth orbit. DARPA’s Robotic Servicing of Geosynchronous Satellites vehicle, which a Maxar business unit called Space Infrastructure Services will commercialize for government and commercial satellites, is scheduled to launch in 2021. Maxar has a contract with fleet operator SES to provide on-orbit life extension of a satellite using RSGS.
Orbital ATK’s next-generation system “will perform some of the same functions as Restore L, but I would not say they are comparable,” said Wilson “It will be very different. Ours will not be a refueling vehicle. It’ll leverage the technologies we developed in MEV and add some robotic capability.” In contrast to the SSL vehicles, Orbital ATK’s MEVs lock with satellites and take over propulsive movements, rather than refuel the original spacecraft.
As the industry gears up for a predicted on-orbit servicing boom, it is also testing technologies to actually assemble new satellites on orbit. Orbital ATK has received a new NASA contract under the agency’s “Tipping Point” private-public partnership to develop on-orbit robotic assembly, quick disconnect technology, and on-orbit welding. “Once the technology is more proven on the ground, we do plan some flight demonstrations leading up to the ability to do on-orbit assembly,” said Wilson.
The breakthroughs that many in the industry have only dreamed about are coming to fruition, Wilson said. For years, the industry has worked on perfecting rendezvous and proximity operations and docking with the International Space Station, and the work can now be done with greater confidence.
“That will lead to a revolution in the way satellites are manufactured,” he said. “Repair and life extension is going to lead to assembly,” he added. “We are already working with satellite operators to think differently.” On-orbit assembly could allow for larger satellites than what can fit inside today’s rocket fairings.
Now that Orbital ATK has secured commercial business and NASA work, the next step would be the U.S. military. Wilson said the company is talking to the U.S. Air Force, and suspects it will “come off the sidelines” after seeing satellite servicing technology proved in orbit.