Technology that would allow refuelling and repairing satellites in orbit could become a reality in the next two years, as one of the two companies exploring the concept announces it is about to sign its first commercial contract.
Orbital ATK said that details of the agreement with the first customer for its ViviSat Mission Extension Vehicle (MEV) are being negotiated and the deal would be signed within the next six to eight weeks.
The repair craft, based on the design of Orbital’s Cygnus cargo space capsule, will be able to dock with satellites in the geostationary orbit and provide fuel or manoeuvring assistance. This way, it would be possible to extend the lifetime of such satellites in the overcrowded geostationary orbit or even launch larger spacecraft, as fuel wouldn’t need to be included into the initial payload mass. The MEV spacecraft would also be able to move satellites to different positions in space to enable them to cover different areas.
The technology would allow a reduction in the amount of space junk orbiting the Earth, as new satellites may not need to be launched so frequently. It would also allow moving defunct spacecraft to safer, emptier positions in space.
Orbital ATK’s vice president Tom Wilson didn’t disclose who the first customer was. Despite not revealing the exact amount, he said the firm has invested tens of millions into the development.
Orbital ATK plans to start trials of MEV in 2018 with the first commercial mission to be carried out in 2019. The firm envisions it would eventually operate a whole fleet of MEVs. Over time, with the advances in robotic technology, the servicing satellites would be able to perform a wider range of actions including swapping payloads and minor repairs.
Each of the MEV satellites will be designed to last for 15 to 20 years, with the ability to dock and undock from other satellites 10 to 15 times.
"It's the start of a whole new market," Wilson said, adding that about 70 communications satellites out of the 380 currently in orbit are likely to need servicing towards the end of their life time to help them maintain their position in space.
Wilson said the company had been open about its development of the technology and he did not expect criticism from Russia or China about its potential use to damage other satellites. "This system was designed for commercial purposes," he said.
The project was originally initiated by ATK in 2009, but gained fresh momentum after Orbital merged with ATK 18 months ago.
Orbital also had a role on a secret Air Force program that was first disclosed last year and includes docking capabilities, Wilson said, although no additional details were disclosed.
Orbital ATK is competing to become the first company to launch a satellite servicing spacecraft with Canadian aerospace firm MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates (MDA), which has announced its Space Infrastructure Servicing project in 2010. However, MDA failed to find launch partners and admitted it may have to shelve the project.