New Space Industry Emerges: On-Orbit Servicing

Communication Satellite Orbiting Earth. 3D Scene.

When there are thousands of planes left abandoned on the airstrip, one can’t express his feelings by seeing this. The same thing is seen in space where thousands of satellites are scattered as without fuel they are unable to run on their orbit. Though these can’t run because of loss of fuel, their hardware is still in good condition.

Al Tadros, vice president of space infrastructure and civil space at a company called SSL told “It’s literally throwing away hundreds of millions of dollars,” this month at a meeting in the US capital of key players in the emerging field of on-orbit servicing, or repairing satellites while they are in space. Very soon, new aerospace companies will try and extend the lifespan of satellites, on the hunch that many clients would try these rather re-launching new ones.

In 2021, his group will launch a vehicle—as part of its Robotic Servicing of Geosynchronous Satellites (RSGS) program which can serve two to three dozen satellites at far geostationary orbit, some 22,000 miles (36,000 kilometers) from Earth where there are around 500 lively satellites, the majority in telecommunications.

This unmanned spacecraft will be capable to handle a satellite to examine it, refill fuel in it, and probably even repair it or alter components, and then put it again in the right orbit. Tadros portrays it as “equivalent to a AAA servicing truck in geostationary orbit.” He also said, “It’s financially a very, very big opportunity,”

Telecommunications giant Intelsat, that manages 50 geostationary satellites, took a different option and signed a contract with Space Logistics; a branch of Northrop Grumman, for its MEV, a “very simple system” vice president Ken Lee told AFP is much like a “tow truck.” In 2019, when it launches, the spacecraft will join itself to a broken satellite, and relocate it in its right orbit. The MEV will keep on attached and will use its own engine to stay in orbit.


Too much debris

On-orbit servicing could also help reduce the baffling problem of rising space debris. According to the US military, out of the 23,000 space objects, only 1,900 are active satellites. The rest which move at the speed of 12-19,000 miles (20-30,000 kilometers) per hour includes around 3,000 inactive satellites, 2,000 pieces of rockets (for example, the second stages of rockets) and thousands of pieces produced by two main incidents: the planned missile explosion of a Chinese satellite in 2007, and the 2009 collision of an Iridium satellite with an older Russian one.

There has been no short-term solution found out for small-scale space garbage, but some companies will try to remove invalid satellites from orbit. According to Laurent Francillout, head of space security at the French National Center for Space Studies (CNES), since 2008, France has needed satellite operators who can take steps to “deorbit” their spacecrafts by programming them to re-enter Earth’s atmosphere in 25 years in order that they burn up.

In case of satellites in geostationary orbits, their end-of-life option is to go more distant place from Earth to a “graveyard orbit” 200 miles (300 kilometers) further away. Francillout told AFP “We are trying to promote these principles” in other countries.

A small Japanese company started in 2013, Astroscale is developing a system to come near and capture space debris and broken satellites. However, it doesn’t have a customer yet, director of operations Chris Blackerby expects the business would be “very viable.”


A test launch is intended for 2020

Airbus’s future “Space Tug,” designed for 2023, is being built to capture old satellites and drive them down to 125 miles (200 kilometers) above Earth so they burn up.

The problem of space debris is getting worse. According to the Satellite Industry Association, the number of satellites in space has already increased 50 percent in five years, and growth goes on.

For now, the debate is agitating in the United States over the necessity for better international regulation of space traffic, aimed at staying away from accidents and controlling future conflicts.

“We don’t want the Wild West,” said Fred Kennedy, director of the Tactical Technology Office at DARPA, the technological research arm of the Pentagon, reminding that the United States, with its fleet of military satellites, is dedicated to establishing sound practices away from the boundaries of Earth.