Orbital ATK CEO David W. Thompson and Intelsat CEO Stephen Spengler announce their MEV agreement at the 2016 Space Symposium. Credit: Chuck Bigger

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — Orbital ATK has signed Intelsat as its first customer for a revived satellite life extension program as part of the company’s ambitions to create a growing market for satellite servicing for commercial and government customers.

At a press conference during the 32nd Space Symposium here, Orbital ATK said it has also established a new subsidiary to handle its satellite servicing efforts, replacing a joint venture that failed to raise sufficient funding to develop the system.

“About a month ago, Orbital ATK decided to make a substantial investment in commercial satellite in-orbit servicing, because we believe there’s a real market for space logistics,” said Tom Wilson, president of Space Logistics LLC, the new Orbital ATK subsidiary responsible for its satellite servicing efforts.

Orbital ATK is offering the Mission Extension Vehicle (MEV), a spacecraft designed to rendezvous with a commercial satellite and dock to the nozzle of its apogee kick motor and surrounding adapter ring. The MEV would then take over propulsion and attitude control for the satellite, offering up to five years of extended life.

Intelsat has agreed to be the customer for the first MEV mission, named MEV-1 and scheduled for launch in 2018. MEV-1 will first dock with a retired satellite in a graveyard orbit above stationary orbit to test its systems, then dock with an active Intelsat satellite to extend its life for five years.

An Orbital ATK Mission Extension Vehicle (left) approaches a commercial communications satellite. Credit: Orbital ATK illustration.
An Orbital ATK Mission Extension Vehicle (left) approaches a commercial communications satellite. Credit: Orbital ATK illustration.

“In-orbit servicing will be a valuable tool for Intelsat and for the customers which we serve,” said Stephen Spengler, chief executive of Intelsat, at the press conference. “It will extend the lives of our satellites where existing technology is still viable for the applications that they serve.” Intelsat had not yet identified the satellites that MEV-1 will dock with on its mission.

The MEV has been under development for several years, but previously by ViviSat, a joint venture of Orbital ATK and satellite operator U.S. Space. Wilson said the joint venture was recently dissolved because it failed to raise sufficient outside funding to continue work on the concept.

Orbital ATK is instead fully funding the MEV. David W. Thompson, president and chief executive of Orbital ATK, declined to specify how much it is spending on the MEV. He did note that the company is investing $1 billion in research and development programs, and that the MEV is “one of the larger components” of that overall effort. He added the company expects to sell at least five MEVs over the next five years.

The effort does have challenges beyond the technical development of the MEV itself. Wilson said that no government agency currently has the responsibility to regulate satellite servicing activities. “We’ve been working with the U.S. government for a long time now,” he said. “We expect to be sort of a pathfinder in that perspective, working with the U.S. government to figure out how to get a mission license to execute the mission.”

Thompson billed satellite servicing as a new market that will expand over time to include both government and commercial satellites, and move beyond simple life extension to refueling and repair of spacecraft. “We’re really just at the beginning of developing what I think will be an important line of business for the company over the next couple of decades,” he said.

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...