Tel Aviv-based start up Effective Space Solutions claims that its DeOrbiter microsatellites could not only be used to dispose of defunct geosynchronous satellites, but could also rescue a pair of errant Galileo satellites currently trapped in the wrong orbit and put them back into service.

On August 22, two Galileo satellites were launched atop a Russian Soyuz rocket from the European spaceport in French Guiana. Part of the European 30-satellite constellation satnav system similar to GPS, a malfunction sent the pair into the wrong orbit, where they function, but are effectively useless.

That would normally be the very expensive end to the story, but Effective Space believes that the technology it is developing could salvage the two wayward satellites and put them back in their proper orbits using ion-propelled microsatellites.

"We could save them," says Arie Halsband, Effective Space Solutions Founder and CEO. "This is exactly the sort of situation we’ve been anticipating. Our DeOrbiter microsatellite is designed to provide in-orbit services such as station keeping, deorbiting, relocation and fault monitoring to communications satellites. All of these missions require rendezvous and docking capabilities. DeOrbiter is a uniquely capable microsatellite, which allow it also to perform rescue missions for renegade satellites. We already performed initial analysis and verified we’re up to it."

Effective Space Solutions’ DeOrbiter was originally intended for reducing the cloud of space debris circling the Earth while making satellite operations more economical. Currently, satellites in geosynchronous orbit must keep part of their propellant supply in reserve to send them to a "graveyard" orbit at the end of their service life. This reduces the debris problem, but it also means a shorter service life for the satellites, resulting in millions of dollars lost.

As its name suggests, DeOrbiter is designed to act as a space tug to take over the task of de-orbiting a satellite, thereby increasing its service life by allowing the satellite to use almost all of its propellant for station keeping. The 250 kg (551 lb) microsatellite is launched as an auxiliary payload in a special mounting ring that carries several DeOrbiters that ride along with a geosynchronous satellite launch. It can also be launched into a low-Earth orbit to slow down low-altitude satellites and send them to burn up in the atmosphere in a controlled re-entry.

Once in space, its ion propulsion system takes over. Powered by 1,500 W solar panels, it ionizes xenon propellant to build up enough thrust to de-orbit a two-ton satellite. It carries enough propellant to de-orbit two satellites, or to maintain one in its proper orbit for four years. Using a combination of an onboard targeting system and supervision from mission control, the DeOrbiter is designed to rendezvous with a satellite, match orbits, compensate for any spin, and lock on with a grapnel.

Effective Space reasons that what works for de-orbiting a satellite, can also be used to boost one into a higher orbit. The company says that it would be possible to rendezvous with the errant Galileo satellites and push them back into their correct orbits. However, this would not be an immediate solution because the DeOrbiter is still in its very preliminary stages. Having completed a feasibility study, the company says that it is currently going through the process of patenting its docking technology, so it is unlikely that a rescue mission is in the near future even if Galileo’s owners accept the offer.

The animation below explains the DeOrbiter concept.

View gallery - 6 images