COLORADO SPRINGS – A new Orbital ATK venture set up to develop commercial on-orbit satellite-servicing capabilities has signed Intelsat as its first paying customer, with the launch of the initial Mission Extension Vehicle (MEV-1) to an out-of-service Intelsat bird as early as 2018.                                                                       

That would set up a test rendezvous and docking in 2019, kicking off a five-year round of servicing missions under the contract between the two companies  that could include NASA-developed spacecraft refueling toward the end of the contract’s term.

The new “Space Logistics LLC” subsidiary of Orbital ATK  continues work that ATK conducted alone over the past several years with its “ViviSat” offshoot. The new push to operations grew out of investments made possible by the merger of Orbital Sciences and ATK to create the new parent company (Aerospace DAILY,  March 7 - subscription required).

Executives of the two companies declined to discuss financial details of the deal at a press conference during the annual Space Symposium here. Stephen Spenger, Intelsat chief executive, said the main advantage of buying in-space servicing is the flexibility it will provide in operating his company’s fleet of 49 operational spacecraft.

“What we try to do is to optimize the life of each and every satellite,” Spengler said. “And very often we’re moving satellites to different orbital locations in the latter parts of their lives to capture market opportunity and address specific customer requirements. So having the ability to add, say, five years or more life on any particular satellite allows us to extend services for certain customers … provides an enormous amount of fleet flexibility. So the economic value of this is not so much to delay the launches, but to enhance the revenue stream over a longer period of time.”

With a significant injection of cash from the merged company, engineers who cut their teeth at ViviSat will use an Orbital ATK GeoStar 3 communications-satellite bus, modified to a servicing configuration designated “Gemini,” to approach a defunct Intelsat satellite positioned in a “graveyard” orbit, position itself behind the spacecraft’s apogee kick motor, and extend a probe into the motor’s narrow throat for grappling with extendable “fingers.”

Controllers will command the grappled probe to retract, pulling the satellite’s Marmon ring onto a set of four stanchions on MEV-1 for a hard dock. From that point the servicing platform will use its own thrusters to move the target around, demonstrating that the concept works. Space Logistics President Tom Wilson said the test target may be returned to an operational orbit if it still holds enough fuel to make it worthwhile, or the MEV-1 will detach itself and fly to dock with an operational satellite that is nearing fuel depletion to extend its life with the 30 “equivalent years” of “life-extension fuel” it carries.

Ultimately, Satellite Logistics hopes to adapt technology under development at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center to refuel customer spacecraft robotically. Goddard’s Satellite Servicing Capabilities Office is developing robotic technology for the planned Asteroid Redirect Mission and a demonstration mission to refuel an operational government satellite in low Earth orbit in 2020 (Aerospace DAILY, March 30 - subscription required).

Satellite Logistics hopes to build a fleet of MEVs to service on-orbit commercial and perhaps government spacecraft, moving from spacecraft to spacecraft to change their orbits, take over for their fuel-depleted propulsion systems, and ultimately to refuel and repair them robotically.

“Our simple approach minimizes risk, enhances mission assurance, and enables our customers to realize the maximum value of their in-orbit satellite assets,” Wilson said, adding that his company is in discussions with other satellite operators for the same service it has sold to Intelsat.