New Space Industry for Servicing Satellites on Orbit

New Aerospace Companies to Extend Lifespan of Satellites, when satellites run out of fuel and can no longer maintain their precise orbit, rendering them useless even if their hardware is still intact; have been founded in recent years.  Satellites that circle the Earth have been left abandoned for decades. Companies now think that fixing such abandoned satellites in space is more profitable than re-launching new ones.

MacDonald Dettwiler and Associates (MDA) Corporation, a Canadian aerospace firm, announced in early 2010 that a Spacecraft – Space Infrastructure Servicing (SIS) was being developed as a small-scale scale in-space refuelling depot for Communication Satellites in Geosynchronous Orbit.

  • MDA announced in March 2011, that  Intelsat was to be their inaugural launch partner and that the SIS vehicle could be ready to launch as early as 2015, with Intelsat providing up to US$280,000,000 over the timeframe that the on-orbit services would be delivered to a portion of the Intelsat satellite fleet.
  • MDA put the launch plans on hold in November 2011 pending finding a second launch partner, beyond Intelsat.
  • Intelsat dropped out of the collaboration in January 2012 as such a customer was not found.
  • Defense Advances Research Project Agency (DARPA) of U. S. selected MDA’s Palo Alto, California Company, SSL, as their commercial partner for the Agency’s Robotic Servicing of Geosynchronous Satellites (RSGS) program in March 2017.
  • SSL will launch in 2021 a vehicle that is capable of servicing two to three dozen satellites in a distant geostationary orbit, some 36000 km from the earth.
  • This unmanned spacecraft will be able to latch onto a satellite to inspect it, refuel it, and possibly even repair it or change components, and put it back in the correct orbit.
  • Intelsat, which operates 50 geostationary satellites, chose a different option and signed a contract with Space Logistics for its Mission Extension Vehicle (MEV).
  • MEV Spacecraft to be launched in 2019 will attach itself to a broken down satellite, and reposition it in its correct orbit.
  • MEV will stay attached and use its own engine to stay in orbit.
  • On-orbit servicing could also help cut down on the perplexing problem of mounting space debris.

In space, of the 23000 space object as counted by the US military, there are just 1900 Active Satellites, besides nearly 3000 inactive satellites, 2000 pieces of rockets and thousands of fragments produced by two key events: the deliberate missile explosion of a Chinese satellite in 2007, and the 2009 collision of an Iridium satellite with an ageing Russian one.

According to French National Centre for Space Studies (CNES), France since 2008 has required satellite operators to take steps to “deorbit” their space-crafts by programming them to re-enter the earth’s atmosphere in 25 years so that they burn up.

In case of satellites in geostationary orbits, their end-of-life option is to go farther from the earth to a “graveyard orbit” 300 kilometres further away.

Astroscale, a small Japanese company founded in 2013, is developing a system to approach and capture space debris and broken satellites. A test launch is planned for 2020.

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

According to the Satellite Industry Association the number of satellites in space has already risen 50% in five years, and growth continues. The problem of space junk is only getting worse as no short term solution has been identified.

Better international regulation of space traffic aimed at avoiding accidents and managing future conflicts is needed.

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