Northrop Grumman has docked a spacecraft to a satellite, in order to correct its orbit, for the second time, the company announced in a press release on Monday, April 12.
The impressive feat in "in-space servicing" is another historic milestone for a company that's trying to extend the life of satellites already in orbit and, by extension, reduce the amount of space debris floating around Earth.
Back in April of last year, Northrop Grumman announced that it had brought an aging satellite, the Intelsat 901 (IS-901), back to life with its MEV-1 spacecraft — successfully carrying out the first-ever docking of two commercial vehicles in space in the process.
Now, the aerospace and defense company announced it docked its MEV-2 vehicle with IS-10-02. Unlike the MEV-1, which docked above the GEO orbit before moving the satellite's orbit, the MEV-2 "docked with IS-10-02 directly in its operational GEO orbital location," Northrop Grumman explained.
MEV-2 is set to provide five years of service to IS-10-02 under the terms of the agreement between Northrop Grumman and the satellite's operator, Intelsat. Once those five years are up, it will undock and proceed to dock with another satellite.
The Mission Extension Vehicle (MEV) is the first generation of Northrop Grumman’s satellite servicing vehicles.
Thanks to a robotic servicing DARPA award last year, the company aims to launch the first-ever commercial robotic servicing spacecraft, which will allow for more advanced and timely satellite servicing.
As space debris grows, so does the satellite servicing sector
By enabling longer lifespans for existing satellites, Northrop Grumman hopes to allow satellite providers to get their money's worth when it comes to costly launches.
"Today’s successful docking of our second Mission Extension Vehicle further demonstrates the reliability, safety and utility of in-space logistics," said Tom Wilson, vice president, strategic space systems, Northrop Grumman, and president, SpaceLogistics LLC. "The success of this mission paves the way for our second generation of servicing satellites and robotics, offering flexibility and resiliency for both commercial and government satellite operators, which can enable entirely new classes of missions."
The technology may also help to slightly reduce the rapidly accelerating rate of satellite launches — leading to potentially catastrophic space collisions — by squeezing a few extra years of service out of satellites that are already operational.
According to data from the United Nations, approximately 8,950 satellites have been launched by more than 40 nations since the first artificial satellite — Sputnik 1 — was launched in 1957. Of the roughly 5,000 that remain in orbit, only around 1,950 are still operational.
Technologies such as Northrop Grumman's can help to keep a greater percentage of satellites operational for longer, leading to less work for a slew of new space debris collection startups such as Kurbs Orbital.
Market research firm NSR estimates that in-orbit services, including orbit relocation, refueling, and repair will become a $3 billion business over the next decade.
With its first steps in satellite servicing successfully completed and a robotic servicing spacecraft in the works, Northrop Grumman is well-positioned to set itself as a leader in the burgeoning satellite servicing sector.