For the First Time, a Spacecraft Has Returned
an Aging Satellite to Service
In a triumph for the nascent industry of “satellite servicing,” an aging communications satellite has returned to service in geostationary orbit.
Northrop Grumman announced recently that its Mission Extension Vehicle-1, or MEV-1, has restored the Intelsat 901 satellite and relocated it into a position to resume operations.
“We see increased demand for our connectivity services around the world, and preserving our customers’ experience using innovative technology such as MEV-1 is helping us meet that need,” Intelsat Chief Services Officer Mike DeMarco said in a news release.
After launching on a Proton rocket last October, Northrop Grumman’s servicing vehicle used its mechanical docking system to latch onto Intelsat 901, at an altitude of 36,000km above Earth. Before this, no two commercial spacecraft had ever docked in orbit before.
Since it docked, the MEV-1 servicer has assumed navigation of the combined spacecraft stack, reducing the satellite’s inclination by 1.6 degrees and relocating it to a new orbital location, at 332.5° east. Intelsat then transitioned about 30 of its commercial and government customers to the satellite two weeks ago. The transition of service took approximately six hours and was successful.
Based on the agreement between Northrop and Intelsat, MEV-1 will provide five years of life extension services to the satellite before moving it into a graveyard orbit. MEV-1 will then be available to provide additional mission extension services, Northrop said, including orbit raising, inclination corrections, and inspections. Northrop is already building a second MEV to service another Intelsat satellite, 1002, later this year.
This satellite servicing milestone comes as both low-Earth orbit as well as geostationary space – where large, expensive communications satellites are often placed high above the planet to hold their position over the ground – are becoming more crowded. The availability of a service such as that offered by MEV-1 offers satellite providers both the ability to extend the lifetime of aging assets, but also to potentially remove those they have lost control of from the ground.
These kinds of services are generally seen in the space community as vital to keeping orbital space as decluttered as possible in the coming decades, so it is good that this demonstration case worked out well.