Tom Wilson President, Space Logistics LLC & Orbital ATK VP for strategy and business development, speaks with SpaceNews Silicon Valley correspondent Debra Werner
In late 2018, Space Logistics LLC, Orbital ATK’s subsidiary for satellite servicing, plans to launch the first satellite of its kind: a Mission Extension Vehicle (MEV) designed to latch onto a satellite that is running out of fuel to take over station keeping and attitude control. Intelsat signed on as the first customer for the MEV under a fiveyear contract announced in April.
But that is just the start. Space Logistics plans to launch a fleet of five MEVs by 2020 to expands its on-orbit servicing business to serve commercial and government satellite operators.
You’ve announced a contract with Intelsat. What does that entail?
Over a period of five years starting in mid-2019, we are going to extend the life of between one and three Intelsat satellites.
What are your plans to serve other customers?
Each of these MEV satellites is designed to last 15 years or more. After Intelsat’s contract is over we will hopefully go connect with somebody else’s satellite. We haven’t started selling Year Six. A lot of the market value will increase once we show we can do it on orbit.
Will you take satellites to a graveyard orbit?
We can take them to a graveyard orbit. Or if they have enough of their own fuel remaining after we undock, they can do it themselves. We can also remove the inclination of satellites. We can tug things around as well to extend their life.
Any new technology you need for MEVs?
We are drawing on the heritage from a combination of Orbital ATK product lines: GEOStar-2 and -3. The payload is a rendezvous, proximity and docking payload. That heritage comes from our Cygnus ISS cargo delivery systems and the U.S. Air Force’s Geosynchronous Space Situational Awareness Program. The only technology that hasn’t flown yet is the docking technology, although it is based on a lineage of over 40 years. We’ve been testing our specific design in the laboratory for about five years now.
The emergence of high-throughput communications satellites, which promise to bolster capacity in the market, combined with the increasing global pricing pressure which is reducing satellite bandwidth prices, is making commercial satellite operators more cost conscious than ever. That trend makes on-orbit servicing increasingly attractive because it adds years to satellite lifespans, delays capital deployment related to new spacecraft, and enables operators to bring new markets into use.
Are more capabilities, like refueling, coming?
Absolutely. It would be a risky prospect to go straight to refueling with the current state of the technology. We are eager for NASA to have a successful mission to prove the technology works. We plan to institute refueling as well as robotic repair missions.
Some question the business case for MEVs. Why would a company pay to keep an aging satellite in orbit instead of buying a new one?
We are not asking satellite operators to deploy a few hundred million dollars to build and launch a satellite. We are asking them to pay a yearly service fee. I’m not going into the exact pricing, but it is an economical fee relative to the amount of revenue they are generating from these satellites. We allow them at a small incremental cost to extend that life and continue to generate revenue.
Any plans to serve government customers?
Right now our focus is on the commercial market. It is important for us to validate the business case with the commercial industry before we start relying on the U.S. government. We do intend to add them to our customer base.
Can you comment at all on the U.S. Space- Orbital ATK lawsuit?
I can’t comment on that at all.