It seems that new milestone in human presence in space was achieved. Orbital ATK signed first contract for in-space servicing of satellite constellation of Intelsat Company.
Intelsat, Luxembourg based company, is one of the leading operators of fleet of communication and broadcasting satellites decided for pioneer step. Company signed on April 12, 2016, contract with Orbital ATK (well known from its Cygnus commercial supply vehicle) for first in history of space conquest, commercial service spacecraft to provide in-space maintenance for their satellites. Venture is called Commercial Servicing Vehicle (CSV) and will be based on developed since 2012 by Orbital Mission Extension Vehicle-1 (MEV-1). Mission Extension Vehicle was project developed as cooperation with U.S. Space (50/50 contribution of U.S. Space and Orbital ATK) by Vivisat Company. General conception is based on demand for cost reducing and extending possibilities of possessed satellites. MEV-1 will be developed as spacecraft which could serve as reusable additional propulsion for changing orbit of satellite. It will fly to satellite remaining on orbit (which could be for example out of fuel or if there is necessity to save fuel remaining in tanks for other purposes than changing orbit) attach to it and using own thrusters move it into other position. After reaching new position, MEV will detach and perform next mixt mission. In 2012 Vivisat announced that project is ready to be offered on commercial market, but company failed to find any potential customers that time. Now it seems that everything changed and this ambitious venture became reality sooner than could ever suspect; first MEV spacecraft will be launched on 2018 and after one year tests it will become operational on 2019. It will start its mission from relocating Intelsat satellites which will be still technically in good condition to start new mission from different position. Due the fact that MEV will be fully reusable (only limit is the fuel but this problem could be solved by creating refueling spacecraft which will be launched as piggyback payload during other missions performed by Orbital ATK) cost of the service will be significantly lower than sending next satellite as replacement. In spite of the launch cost, customer is avoiding paying for payload which is still in operational condition in satellite on orbit.
Orbital ATK states that this is only the beginning of building their supremacy on market of new space services. President of Orbital ATK, David W. Thompson states that:
“There is a vital need to service fully functional but ageing satellites in both commercial and government markets. Backed by our continued investment, today’s announcement signals that we are just getting started in expanding our CSV fleet to provide a diverse array of in-space services in the future.”
In fact it seems that Orbital ATK is leader of in-space servicing. Another Luxembourg based company with large satellite constellation, SES, announced about progressing talks with Orbital ATK and MDA about creating servicing satellite to meet their demands. DARPA started to develop own program assuming more advanced actions like refueling or even swapping payload or repairing satellites, could be better solution for commercial companies. Unfortunately this program is at the moment in early phase of development, not to mention that almost all satellites remaining in space are not able to perform refueling or swapping payload. DARPA is now seeking for potential partner for developing prototype, but it could be possible that Orbital ATK will develop such technology earlier. For the moment Orbital ATK is leader and probably strength its position in 2016.
On picture above: Vanguard satellite from 1957 – sometimes satellites need something more than refueling…