Space

Communications satellite returns to service after historic docking

Communications satellite retur...
Artist's rendering of MEV-1 and target
Artist's rendering of MEV-1 and target
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The Intelsat 901 has returned to service less than two months after its historic docking with Northrop Grumman's first Mission Extension Vehicle (MEV-1). Intelsat announced today that the 19-year-old communications satellite is now operating in its new orbit after MEV-1 took over attitude and orbital maintenance in March.

When the MEV-1 docked with Intelsat 901 on February 25 it marked the opening of a new field of space services. Not only was it the first time two commercial spacecraft docked in geostationary orbit, but it was also introduced a new way of looking at the active lifespan of orbital satellites.

Currently, satellites have depressingly short and expensive service lives. In most cases, this isn't due to the spacecraft experiencing a general breakdown of systems but rather the failure of one key component. Usually, this component is the craft running out of the propellants needed to keep it on station and pointing its communications antenna and solar arrays in the right direction.

The result of this is that many satellites that are still perfectly good in all other respects have to be sent into a disposal orbit and shutdown. This would have been the case with Intelsat 901 after 19 years of relaying data transmissions, but MEV has provided the satellite with a reprieve.

In February, MEV-1 used a drogue mechanism to lock onto the satellite and pull itself in to dock over Intel 901's now-inoperative main thruster. After system checks and various tests, MEV-1 took over the navigation chores for the new spacecraft stack, shifting its orbit by 1.6 degrees and moving it into a new position. Intelsat then transferred 30 commercial and government customers to the reactivated satellite on April 9.

It will remain attached to Intel 901 for five years before sending the communications satellite into its final disposal orbit. MEV-1 will then be available for servicing other satellites by not only dealing with navigation but also providing inspections and maintenance. A second MEV, MEV-2, is scheduled to rendezvous with Intelsat 1002 later this year.

"Our partnership with Intelsat was critical to delivering this innovative satellite technology into operation," says Tom Wilson, vice president, Northrop Grumman Space Systems and president, SpaceLogistics, LLC. "This historic event, highlighted by the first in-orbit rendezvous and docking of two commercial satellites and the subsequent repositioning of the two-spacecraft stack, demonstrates the business value that MEV offers to customers. Now that MEV-1 has successfully delivered on its mission to place the Intelsat 901 satellite back into operational service, we will continue to pioneer the future of on-orbit servicing through our multi-year technology roadmap leading to additional services such as inspection, assembly, and repair."

Source: Intelsat

3 comments
Aross
If fuel is the problem then why not build satellites that can be refueled with replaceable fuel tanks?
Gregg Eshelman
Now how about doing the same with the Kepler telescope? Sell it to a commercial operator who will apply similar technology to take over its pointing from the failed reaction wheels.
ljaques
Go, Northrop Grumman! // Gregg, what say we put those lazy astronauts to work replacing the Kepler reaction wheels. (I suggest replacing all 4, despite just 2 failures.) // And why don't we have any space fighters yet? They could shoot down the defunct sats, cleaning up space around the Earth. Or are we collecting junk now?