Up until now, commercial satellites have essentially been disposable. Even the massive, multi-ton ones that can have service lives spanning a decade or more eventually just become so much space trash once they’re out of fuel, or they experience some kind fo terminal mechanical failure. A new spacecraft built by Northrop Grumman and launched aboard a Russian Soyuz today (via Space.com) could change all that, however.
The MEV-1, as its known, is a satellite service spacecraft, which has the specific mission of meeting up with Intelsat 901 in orbit and lending it use of its orientation thrusters to put it back into an ideal target orbit – thus extending the useful life of the 18-year old satellite by as many as five years. Once it has succeeded in putting Intelsat 901 back on track, it’s very possible the MEV-1 could do the same thing for yet another orbital satellite running low on its own propellant supply.
In fact, Northrop Grumman says that the spacecraft is itself designed for a 15-year useful life, and can dock and undock multiple times, providing “well in excess of” 15-years of mission extension to geosynchronous satellites around 4,400 lbs in size while docked with said satellite.
That should mark a new era for commercial satellite operation, leading to further decreased operating costs, and therefore more access for startup and smaller companies to take part. Northrop’s MEV-1 is basically a space tug, but even that can as much as double the life of some geosynchronous satellites – which means a lot more potential revenue for not too much more cost, if the MEV-1 serves multiple customers who share the cost of its development and launch. Think of it as satellite servicing-as-a-service, or a SsaaS model for space tech companies.
Other satellite servicing projects are in the works, and could benefit companies like Orbit Fab, the so-called ‘gas stations in space’ startup that was a finalist in our Battlefield competition at TC Disrupt last week. Orbit Fab is working on a simple refuelling system for satellites to use in space, so that the servicing craft wouldn’t need to actually dock and propel the satellite it’s working with, just connect and transfer some fuel. Other potential business opportunities could lead from in-space commercial orbital spacecraft servicing, including upgrading satellites with new modules and sensors from different customers to maximize the return on the investment of their original design, build and launch.