The view from Northrop Grumman’s MEV-2 spacecraft as it approached to dock with the Intelsat satellite IS-1002.
Two airlines carried out an industry first Monday when a small Northrop Grumman spacecraft successfully docked with an active Intelsat satellite to provide service and extend its lifespan.
The companies reached a milestone in the growing business of servicing satellites while in space.
“Today’s successful docking of our second Mission Extension Vehicle further demonstrates the reliability, security and usability of space logistics,” said Tom Wilson, Vice President of Nothrop Grumman’s Strategic Space Systems, in a statement. “The success of this mission paves the way for our second generation of servicing satellites and robotic technologies that offer flexibility and resilience to both commercial and public satellite operators that can enable entirely new mission classes.”
A close-up of Intelsat’s IS-1002 satellite as MEV-2 approached for docking in orbit.
Extending the life of an active spacecraft in orbit has only been done with human help before – such as Hubble Telescope service personnel performed by NASA astronauts.
Launched in August on an Arianespace Ariane 5 rocket, the robot MEV-2 spent the last several months traveling to the satellite. The MEV-2 then matched its orbit before being successfully docked, while also delivering unique images of the satellite as the spacecraft approached.
Launched in June 2004, IS-1002 was only intended to be in use for 13 years and provided broadband communications services to Europe, South America, Africa and the Middle East. The satellite is in a fixed position above the Earth in a so-called geosynchronous orbit – tens of thousands of miles up to provide as wide a coverage area as possible.
The MEV-2 mission builds on the success of Northrop Grumman’s MEV-1 mission last year, which was at sea with an inactive Intelsat satellite. This satellite was in a “cemetery circle”, meaning it no longer provided services, but MEV-1 restored it and moved the satellite back into place.
Although MEV-1 was similar to MEV-1, the MEV-2 spacecraft took a step further by docking and extending the current lifespan of a satellite.
Northern Sky Research, a satellite consulting firm, estimates that the market for satellite service and life extension is a $ 3.2 billion. Opportunity over the next decade.
The company predicts that there will be demand for service up to 75 satellites by 2030, with companies and governments wanting to extend the life of typically expensive geosynchronous equatorial orbiting satellites rather than launch replacements.