Remote servicing and repair could be ‘Holy Grail’ for space

April 12, 2016  - By

Don Jewell reports from the 32nd Space Symposium, April 11-14, Colorado Springs, Colorado. (See Monday’s blog here.)

Tuesday, April 12

There are few Holy Grails in space. Today’s announcements from several different companies made it clear that a couple of these Holy Grails are hopefully about to be realized.

This morning, Orbital ATK, in conjunction with its customer Intelsat, announced they are entering the home stretch for a viable and hopefully profitable space payload Mission Extension Service/Vehicle (MEV). Indeed, they actually announced they are fully funded and open for business. Intelsat as the inaugural customer was on hand to support Orbital ATK and explain why this is a necessary mission.

David W. Thompson, Orbital ATK’s president and CEO, put the mission in perspective by stating, “There is a vital need to service fully functional but aging satellites in both commercial and government markets.”

Yes, this is the Dick Tracy comic strip capability we have seen for years, where a space vehicle comes alongside another and refuels, replenishes and otherwise reconstitutes another on-orbit satellite vehicle. We have been doing this for years in a sense with the International Space Station with human involvement (a more analog version, if you will).

But the Orbital ATK capability is a true remote in-space servicing and repair capability extending the life of geosynchronous satellites by as much as 15 years. The in-space ability provides a satellite vehicle with batteries, solar panels and propulsion systems that take over for aging satellite subsystems and possibly payloads.

Currently, the first launch of an MEV to service and extend the life of an Intelsat SV is scheduled for 2018. The MEV will launch to support an aging GEOStar spacecraft heritage bus platform on orbit today. Currently Intelsat is utilizing 10 such on orbit assets with the GEOStar bus.

Displaying critical flexibility the 2,000-pound MEV can be dual launched with another GEO asset, making it much more cost effective. The MEV uses an electric propulsion system for both transit, rendezvous and on orbit operations.

The MEV will dock with the subject and/or aging satellite by grappling onto a thruster port. Then the MEV can take over and significantly extend the life of a functional satellite. The MEV can even provide attitude control and, when finished, with one “save” the MEV can use the same electric propulsion system to move to another GEO SV needing replenishment services, even if the move to another platform occurs years later.

“The impossible is fast becoming a reality,” said Stephen Spengler, chief executive of Intelsat. Indeed, over the next five years Orbital ATK expects to launch a fleet of five MEV satellites that will refuel, replenish and provide robotic repair to an ailing/aging space vehicle, and eventually provide on-orbit assembly and repairs.

You may think this is merely a commercial version of the NASA Goddard “Restore L” program. Actually, the Orbital ATK capability is much more aggressive in nature — refueling is merely one of many on-orbit capabilities.

Note that Orbital execs were quick to point out that this is not an offensive weapons capability as it is not made to work with uncooperative satellites. But is by design a life-extension capability for GEO satellites.

I asked Orbital CEO David Thompson about using the MEV capability for boosted GPS satellites that still have a viable capability. While he did not discount the idea, he clearly stated that the GPS missions would have to wait until the capability is proven as economically viable in GEO, which is a much more forgiving environment both for radiation and distances between assets.

The other Holy Grails for space: launch and return, robotic arm

Jeff Bezos also spoke today and showed a video of his Blue Origin spacecraft returning to Earth and landing successfully from a suborbital mission for the third time without an engine change.

This is an incredible capability and, of course, just a couple of days ago Elon Musk and SpaceX demonstrated a similar landing capability. The SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket landed on a drone ship at sea — the first time the company has been able to pull off an ocean landing after four previous attempts ended in failure.

Shortly after the Orbital ATK announcement, Braxton Science and Technology Group, who just acquired Space Ground Systems Solutions (SSGS), reminded attendees they are completing work on a robotic arm along with the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory.

The robotic arm is capable of being mounted on any suitably-sized space vehicle, that — contrary to the Orbital ATK MEV — can be used both for replenishment and defensive purposes.

So, it appears the Holy Grail of SV rendezvous’ is about to be realized.

This is posted in Defense, Featured Stories, Latest News

About the Author: Don Jewell

Don Jewell served 30 years in the United States Air Force, as an aviator and a space subject-matter expert. Don’s involvement with GPS and other critical space systems began with their inception, either as a test system evaluator or user. He served two command assignments at Schriever AFB, the home of GPS, and retired as Deputy Chief Scientist for Air Force Space Command. Don also served as a Politico Military Affairs Officer during the Reagan administration, working with 32 foreign embassies and serving as a Foreign Disclosure Officer making critical export control decisions concerning sophisticated military hardware and software. After retiring from the USAF, Don served seven years as the senior space marketer and subject-matter expert for two of the largest government contractors dealing in space software and hardware. Don currently serves on two independent GPS review teams he helped found, and on three independent assessment teams at the Institute for Defense Analyses, dealing with critical issues for the U.S. government. Don has served on numerous Air Force and Defense Scientific Advisory Boards. He writes and speaks extensively on technical issues concerning the U.S. government. Don earned his Bachelor’s degree and MBA; the Ph.D. is in progress.