The era of commercial satellite servicing arrives

New space missions will test technologies to fix old satellites in orbit

Northrop Grumman's MEV-1 project

Next year, the long-held dream of repairing satellites already in orbit around Earth will come a little closer to reality. Two new missions - from military contractor Northrop Grumman and a startup called Astroscale - will send spacecraft into orbit to rendezvous with other vehicles zooming around Earth to see if it's possible for two satellites to delicately meet up with each other in space.

If successful, these missions could mark a big first step towards cleaning up Earth's orbit and making it a more sustainable place, the Verge writes.

What Northrop Grumman and Astroscale are both trying to prove is a concept known as satellite servicing, which isn't an option for satellite operators right now. As the tech website outlines, whenever an operator launches a satellite into orbit, there's really no way to reach that satellite again. So if a satellite runs out of propellant, you can't refill the tank. Operators have to take the vehicle out of orbit and then replace it with another multimillion-dollar vehicle. Or if a satellite breaks, it'll simply remain in space as an uncooperative piece of junk that could pose a threat to other satellites nearby.

But designing a spacecraft that can help out a broken satellite is no easy task. For one thing, these satellites are zooming overhead at thousands of miles per hour, making them difficult to approach. Additionally, practically none of the satellites have appendages for spacecraft to latch on to, so satellite servicing vehicles will have to come up with creative ways to grapple a satellite that's run out of fuel. And if a satellite suffered some kind of catastrophic failure, it's possible it broke into pieces, making it even harder to grab.

Next year's missions will thus test out two different ways that servicing satellites can latch on to a spacecraft. One will use a robotic mechanism to grab on to an existing satellite, while the other will test out magnetic plates that could allow two satellites to easily snap together. Both methods could prove useful, but first, the teams need to show that they can work. And Northrop Grumman's satellite servicing mission is already underway.

On 9 October, a Russian Proton rocket launched the company's MEV 1 spacecraft, the first mission to test out satellite servicing capabilities while in space. The MEV 1 spacecraft has now a very specific task. The vehicle's target is a communications satellite called Intelsat 901, which circulates about 22,000 miles above Earth. Launched in 2001, Intelsat 901 has already had a long, productive mission, but the satellite is running low on propellant and ground operators won't be able to control the spacecraft for much longer. So MEV 1 will try to change that, by attaching to Intelsat 901 for at least five years, extending its lifetime. It's possible for MEV 1 to stay attached even longer. But once Intelsat determines that the satellite's time is up, MEV 1 will place the vehicle into what is known as a graveyard orbit - a region of space where non-functioning satellites are placed after they've used up all their fuel so they won't interfere with other operational satellites - and then continue helping out other ageing satellites.

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