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Making the impossible possible: in-orbit satellite life extension

Written by: David Pile, Northrop Grumman Space Systems
Published on: 20 Oct 2020

A satellite’s on-orbit lifespan is traditionally limited by the amount of fuel that the spacecraft’s tanks can hold.  Although the electronics of the satellite’s payload may be fully functional, without fuel the satellite can no longer function.  SpaceLogistics, a wholly owned subsidiary of Northrop Grumman, has now successfully demonstrated a solution to this critical issue, with their Mission Extension Vehicle (MEV).  The MEV is essentially a jetpack for aging satellites. The MEV docks with the client satellite and provides it with the required propulsion for as long as 15 years of additional life extension.

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The first MEV, MEV-1, was launched on-board a Proton-M rocket on 9th October 2019, with the mission to extend the life of the Intelsat 901 satellite in Geo-Stationary orbit (GEO).  After travelling through space and raising its orbit to match its target, MEV-1 rendezvoused and docked with the Intelsat 901 on 25th February 2020.  To achieve this world first, SpaceLogistics had to design the MEV with the capability to manoeuvre in close proximity to another satellite, and develop a mechanism to link the two satellites together - not an insubstantial task as the Intelsat 901 wasn’t designed to be docked with!  With the two satellites docked together, MEV-1 used its propulsion systems to re-position the combined satellite stack from over the Pacific to its new operational slot over the Atlantic, allowing the Intelsat 901 to continue providing services to its Intelsat customers.  MEV-1 will remain docked in this position for the next five years, after that it will move the Intelsat 901 into a decommissioning orbit, known as the ‘graveyard orbit’, undock and move to its next customer for mission extension.

Following on from the success of MEV-1, SpaceLogistics‘s second MEV launched on 15th August 2020 on-board an Ariane 5 rocket with a mission to extend another Intelsat satellite.  MEV-2 will reach and dock with its client satellite, Intelsat 10-02, early in 2021.  With these two spacecraft launches, the concept of on-orbit satellite servicing is now very much a reality, potentially unlocking a completely new area of space exploration and development.  SpaceLogistics is already looking ahead to the next generation of mission extension, with its Mission Robotic Vehicle (MRV).  Instead of being limited to supporting one satellite at a time, MRV will be able to install small propulsion augmentation devices or mini jetpacks onto a number of satellites, and in addition, with its robotic arms, is able to perform other robotic services, including inspections and repairs.

As the level of global interest in space increases, and the missions to return to the moon and explore Mars continue to develop, space capability breakthroughs like the MEV are very important.  SpaceLogistics and Northrop Grumman have demonstrated that by combining innovation, engineering excellence and a lot of determination, that what was impossible is now possible.

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By David Pile, Northrop Grumman Space Systems