An artistic rendering of Northrop Grumman’s MEV 1 satellite attached to Intelsat 901. | Image: Northrop Grumman / Space Logistics Services
Next year, the long-held dream of repairing satellites already in orbit around Earth will come a little closer to reality. Two new missions — from military contractor Northrop Grumman and a startup called Astroscale — will send spacecraft into orbit to rendezvous with other vehicles zooming around Earth to see if it’s possible for two satellites to delicately meet up with each other in space. If successful, these missions could mark a big first step toward cleaning up Earth orbit and making it a more sustainable place.
Northrop Grumman and Astroscale are trying to prove out a concept known as satellite servicing, which isn’t an option for satellite operators right now. Whenever an operator launches a satellite into orbit, there’s really no way to reach that satellite again. It’s all on its own out in space. So if a satellite runs out of propellant, you can’t refill the tank. Operators have to take the vehicle out of orbit and then replace it with another multimillion-dollar vehicle. Or if a satellite breaks, it’ll simply remain in space as an uncooperative piece of junk that could pose a threat to other satellites nearby.
Whenever an operator launches a satellite into orbit, there’s really no way to reach that satellite again
Designing a spacecraft that can catch up to and dock with a broken satellite is no easy feat. For one thing, these satellites are zooming overhead at thousands of miles per hour, making them difficult to approach. Additionally, practically all of the satellites that have been sent into space weren’t designed to be caught and repaired. They don’t have appendages for spacecraft to latch on to, so satellite servicing vehicles will have to come up with creative ways to grapple a satellite that’s run out of fuel. And if a satellite suffered some kind of catastrophic failure, it’s possible it broke into pieces, making it even harder to grab.
Next year’s missions will test out two different ways that servicing satellites can grab on to a spacecraft. One will use a robotic mechanism to latch on to an existing satellite, while the other will test out magnetic plates that could allow two satellites to easily snap together. Both methods could prove useful, but first, the teams need to show that they can work.
Northrop Grumman’s satellite servicing mission is already underway. On October 9th, a Russian Proton rocket launched the company’s MEV 1 spacecraft, the first mission to test out satellite servicing capabilities while in space. “We believe it is the first commercial [satellite servicing] mission to do rendezvous and docking,” Joseph Anderson, vice president of business development and operations at Space Logistics, a division of Northrop Grumman, tells The Verge.
The MEV 1 spacecraft has a very specific task: latch on to a satellite already in orbit. The vehicle’s target is a communications satellite called Intelsat 901, which circulates about 22,000 miles above Earth. Launched in 2001, Intelsat 901 has already had a long, productive mission, but the satellite is running low on propellant and ground operators won’t be able to control the spacecraft for much longer.
MEV 1 will try to change that. In late January of next year, the spacecraft will slowly approach Intelsat 901. When the two are in just the right position, MEV 1 will use a device to grab hold of Intelsat 901’s engine. That device will pull the two satellites close so that they’re practically right on top of each other. With the two vehicles acting as one, MEV 1 will then ignite its own engine and place Intelsat 901 in a new orbit so that the satellite can continue working.
MEV 1 will stay attached to Intelsat 901 for at least five years, extending the lifetime of the aging satellite. “They are low on fuel; they are not empty, but they are low on fuel,” says Anderson. “They could not go the extra five years if we didn’t have this flight.” It’s possible MEV 1 could stay attached even longer if Intelsat enjoys the service enough. But once Intelsat determines that the satellite’s time is up, MEV 1 will place the vehicle into what is known as a graveyard orbit — a region of space where non-functioning satellites are placed after they’ve used up all their fuel. In the graveyard orbit, they won’t interfere with other operational satellites.
MEV 1 is just the first in a planned series of missions that Northrop Grumman hopes to do to test out satellite servicing capabilities. Anderson says he’s heard from many satellite operators who are eager for these kinds of services to become readily available. “Almost every operator I talked to would say, ‘Well, if you were there today. I would buy your service,’” says Anderson.
While Northrop Grumman is looking at ways to extend the lives of satellites already in space, Astroscale is figuring out ways to remove satellites that have either failed or used up their fuel and need to be taken out of orbit. That way, there’s less of a chance that these satellites will run into a functioning spacecraft and create more debris. “The company overall has a mission to make space sustainable,” Chris Blackerby, Astroscale’s group COO and director, tells The Verge. “We’re working on end-of-life services for satellites going up, and then active debris removal for debris that’s already in orbit.”
To do this, Astroscale has started assembling the spacecraft for its first mission to space, called the End-of-Life Services by Astroscale-demonstration, or ELSA-d. The goal is to test out a way for two spacecraft to come together in space using magnets. The mission, slated for launch on top of a Russian Soyuz rocket in mid-2020, will loft two spacecraft: a servicing satellite and a dummy piece of debris. Each will be equipped with a magnetic plate. Once in space, the two spacecraft will separate and then practice meeting up with each other over and over again, attaching their magnetic plates together. “The primary goal was just to show that we can find locate, and dock to attach to something that has this plate on it,” says Blackerby.
If this were an actual debris removal mission, Astroscale’s servicing satellite would then transport the piece of debris or non-functioning satellite closer to Earth. There, gravity would drag the junk downward until the satellite burned up as it plunged through Earth’s atmosphere. Right now, Astroscale says the main focus is taking failed satellites out of orbit, but Blackerby says these magnetic plates could be used to fix broken vehicles as well.
Of course, the only way for this future to work is if all satellites are built with this magnetic plate attached. That’s why the company has been pitching satellite operators to include the plate in their spacecraft designs. Astroscale has been talking to regulatory bodies, too, to make these magnetic plates standard for all satellites built moving forward. “Part of our distribution materials will be basically a brochure that says, ‘Here is what our plate would look like. Put it on your satellite. It’s lightweight; it’s minimally intrusive; prepare yourself,’” says Blackerby. “‘Just just prepare yourself, satellite operators, for the future potential that there will be a failure of your satellite.’”