There’s a Sat App for That
We can all recall the well-documented events starting with the launch of the first satellites by the Soviets in 1957 and the Americans in 1958, and the initiation by NASA in 1961 of an active geostationary communications satellite program. However, since Hughes Space and Communications produced the first commercial geostationary communications satellite, Syncom 2, in 1963, change in the satellite business has been incremental.
While communications satellites have irreversibly transformed many human endeavors and commercial industries — how we entertain ourselves, how we conduct wars, how we engage with the people we love — no change has disrupted the industry itself.
The possibilities presented by commercial in-orbit satellite life extension present a fundamental change in the efficacy and economics of the satellite business. We are at the first moments of the opening of a new market. The effects will have far-reaching consequences and benefits for all participants in the value chain. The ability to extend the life of a satellite while in orbit has been imagined, visualized, anticipated and explored by NASA and others for years. That dream has just become reality.
It is not surprising that a change of this dimension should kick up some dust — and so it has. Satellite life extension services were the buzz of the industry both before and during the Satellite 2011 convention, and I fully expect much discussion on this topic in the halls of the Broadmoor at the National Space Symposium.
It’s not the technology itself that’s disruptive, but the impact it will have on business models, procurement practices, asset utilization, market development and crisis management. The good news is that in-orbit servicing presents more efficient use of capital and subsequent increased demand for new satellite missions previously not economically feasible. This increased demand offers substantial long-term benefits for all sectors of the satellite industry: commercial satellite operators and their customers, government operators, manufacturers, launch companies and the insurance community.
In-orbit servicing can address a variety of problems and needs — both predictable and anomalous — and all we have to do is look back at our experiences in just the last few years to see some of them.
Everyone in the industry is familiar with the following scenarios. In fact, some part of the satellite sector usually has to deal with one of these issues at least once or twice a year:
- A satellite launches successfully, but upon delivery there is a problem with station-keeping — perhaps a thruster is impaired.
- A valve on an otherwise healthy satellite fails to perform properly, causing the vehicle to be placed off line.
- A launch places a satellite in a lower than targeted orbit, presenting the choice of using the on-board fuel to transition the satellite to its proper orbit or abandoning the satellite. (I’ve lived through the pain of this one.)
- A military communications satellite that cost a billion dollars to produce and launch is running out of propellant, but its payload continues to be fully effective.
- A national security crisis becomes a prolonged engagement for the U.S. military in a part of the world where additional military satellite communications can be provided if satellites over other parts of the globe can be rapidly moved to the crisis area.
Every year, 20 to 30 geostationary satellites reach the end of fuel life. Most of them have fully operational payloads and are candidates for life extension.
Today’s rendezvous and docking solutions for in-orbit service are designed to resolve each of these issues:
- Long-term station-keeping and attitude control.
- Relocation to different orbits, orbital slots or retirement |locations.
- Rescue and reorbiting of satellites stranded in incorrect orbital slots.
- Extension of the life of a satellite by two to 10 years, depending on the condition of the satellite and the problem being addressed.
There are now two satellite life extension offerings available in the marketplace — ViviSat (anand U.S. Space joint venture company, which I am a part of) and MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates (MDA) Ltd. Each has its own approach and solution set. ViviSat will use a Mission Extension Vehicle that physically docks to the host satellite and performs propulsion and station-keeping with no fuel exchange or electrical connection. The MDA approach will use a robotic process to access fuel tanks and transfer fuel to the client satellite.
The ability to choose from these different approaches is good for the customer and good for the industry. Either way, in-orbit servicing is an idea whose time has come.
Satellite life extension is good news for virtually all market participants. I envision and welcome dynamic industry brainstorming in response to these newly available technologies and solutions.
At ViviSat, we start with a noninvasive “backpack” approach and will develop more sophisticated solutions as the industry brings us the problems they want solved. Working with manufacturers, we will one day be able to perform in-orbit repair, such as battery or solar array replacement. When the Hubble Space Telescope was first built, no one contemplated in-orbit servicing, but the value of this amazing device was so great that people started coming up with ways to repair it and improve it. There is now a large community of people devising apps for Hubble. The same will happen with in-orbit servicing — and many of the solutions will come from commercializing government capabilities.
Please join the discussion. Articulate your needs. Someone is going to say, “There’s a sat app for that.”
Edward D. Horowitz is co-founder of U.S. Space LLC and chairman of ViviSat, its satellite life extension services joint venture with ATK.