Northrop Grumman hit a new milestone in extending the life of active spacecraft as a purpose-built spacecraft, MEV-2, docking with Intelsat’s IS-1002 satellite to give it another 5 years of life. It’s a strong demonstration of the possibilities in a growing field of orbital servicing operations.
MEV-2 launched in August and matched the orbit of Intelsat’s 18-year-old satellite, which would have soon be due for decommissioning, having exceeded its original mission by some 5 years. But it’s precisely this type of situation that the new “on-orbit service, assembly and manufacturing,” or OSAM, industry intends to target, allowing such satellites to live longer — likely saving their operators millions.
In last night’s operation, the MEV-2 spacecraft slowly approached IS-1002 and docked with it, essentially adding itself as a spare engine with a full tank. It will stay attached this way for five years, after which it will move on to its next mission — another end-of-life satellite, probably. (I’ve asked for a few more details along these lines.)
Last year the MEV-1 mission performed a similar operation, docking with Intelsat’s IS-901 and changing its orbit.
But in that case, the satellite was inactive and not in the correct orbit to return to service. MEV-1 therefore had a bit more latitude in how it approached the first part of the mission.
In the case of MEV-2, the IS-1002 satellite was in active use in its accustomed orbit, meaning the servicing spacecraft had to coordinate an approach that ran no risk of disrupting the target craft’s operations. Being able to service working satellites, of course, is a major step up from only working with dead ones.
And naturally the goal is to have spacecraft that could dock and refuel another satellite without hanging onto it for a few years, or service a malfunctioning part so that a craft that’s 99% functional can stay in orbit rather than be allowed to burn up. Startups like Orbit Fab aim to build and standardize the parts and ports needed to make this a reality, and Northrop Grumman is planning a robotic servicing mission for its next trick, expected to launch in 2024.