At NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center just outside Washington, a replica of the Landsat 7 Earthobserving satellite sits alongside a full-scale mockup of an asteroid as engineers work nearby to develop similar technology to capture the disparate targets.
NASA sees the technology it plans to use to refuel Landsat 7 as an important step on the path to diverting incoming asteroids and assembling 25-meter telescopes in orbit. Commercial firms looking at the same technology see dollar signs.
A recent lawsuit claims that satellite owners are willing to spend billions of dollars a year to extend the life of aging satellites by taking over station-keeping, replacing components or towing spacecraft to new orbital locations.
While satellite servicing could theoretically become a multibillion dollar market because satellites worth billions will reach the end of their typically 15-year life expectancies by 2030, it’s too early to predict how many government and commercial satellite operators will opt for this type of service and how many satellites they will pay to keep in orbit rather than replace, said David Belcher, Avascent Analytics space data products analysis manager.
Nevertheless, space companies are staking out their positions in this emerging market and investing in satellite servicing technology.
“I’m extremely bul l ish on the idea,” said David Markham, Lockheed Martin Space Systems strategy and advanced programs vice president. “It will revolutionize the market space.”
Space Logistics, a new subsidiary of satellite and rocket builder Orbital ATK, aims to be the first company to enter the new market with its Mission Extension Vehicle (MEV), a satellite designed to rendezvous and dock with another spacecraft to provide propulsion and attitude control. Under an agreement announced in April, Space Logistics plans to send its first MEV to an Intelsat communications satellite in 2019. If Intelsat decides for any reason it no longer needs the MEV attached to that first satellite, Intelsat can direct Space Logistics to move the MEV to latch onto another satellite. During the five-year contract, Intelsat can use the MEV to extend the life of one to three satellites, Space Logistics President Tom Wilson said.
Although Orbital ATK declined to say how much Intelsat will pay for the service, a lawsuit filed in the New York State Supreme Court in April by U.S. Space LLC, Orbital ATK’s former partner in the Vivisat on-orbit servicing venture, reveals that Vivisat planned to charge customers between $10 million and $15 million per year to extend the life of commercial communications satellites.
Skycorp, a Silicon Valley firm with 10 employees, is in negotiations with two commercial satellite operators to provide a similar service, said Dennis Wingo, Skycorp founder and chief executive, who declined to name the operators. Wingo, an entrepreneur who has been pursuing the satellite servicing market since he founded Skycorp’s predecessor Orbital Recovery Corp. in 2001, licensed intellectual property to Space Logistics in 2015. Wingo holds a patent for extending the life of a satellite in or bound for geostationary orbit by linking it with another spacecraft designed to take over station keeping and attitude control.
Like Space Logistics, Skycorp plans to launch a satellite to rendezvous and dock with its customer’s satellite. Initially, Skycor will focus on moving customer satellites from geostationary orbit to a graveyard orbit at the end of their useful lives. “Once we prove that, we will do life extension missions,” Wingo said.
Satellite builder SSL and its parent company Canada’s MDA also are eying this business. In early 2017, SSL plans to launch its first Payload Orbital Delivery System, a Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency initiative to transport and drop off payloads in geosynchronous orbit or geosynchronous transfer orbit. “This capability is crucial for satellite servicing as it can deliver tools, replacement units, upgraded payloads and other equipment needed for the servicing mission,” said Al Tadros, SSL vice president for civil and defense business.
In addition, SSL is working under separate DARPA and NASA contracts to develop technology to robotically assemble satellites in orbit. These efforts “will pave the way to in-orbit payload modification and upgrade,” Tadros said by email.
Lockheed Martin plans to demonstrate much of the technology it would need for future satellite servicing operations with OSIRISREx, a NASA mission scheduled to launch in September on a United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket to travel to near-Earth asteroid Bennu, map the surface, obtain a sample and bring it to Earth. Through OSIRIS-REx (Origins- Spectral Interpretation-Resource Identification-Security-Regolith Explorer), Lockheed Martin is developing testbeds, software and much of the technology it would need for a wide range of spacebased repair and satellite upgrade missions, Markham said.
The prospect of satellite servicing also is having an impact on the way Lockheed Martin views future constellations. “What if a generation of satellites are designed so that you could provide computer processor upgrades or reconfigure payloads in orbit?” Markham asked.
In the past, that type of work seemed impossible due to the challenges of autonomous rendezvous and proximity operations. Ongoing space station resupply operations show, however, that the technology is mature, Markham said. (Orbital ATK’s autonomous Cygnus cargo tug, it’s worth noting, helps resupply the International Space Station under a pair of NASA contracts worth more than $2 billion.)
Still, replacing computers or antennas in orbit is far more difficult than sending a satellite to provide propulsion for another satellite. So DARPA is focusing on that work. Through its Robotic Servicing of Geosynchronous Satellites program, DARPA plans to mount tools to robotically inspect, repair and upgrade other satellites on a commercial spacecraft. Working with industry, DARPA’s hopes to demonstrate those capabilities within five years and eventually to create “an enduring, reliable, cost effective geosynchronous satellite servicing presence,” according to a DARPA solicitation published May 18.
NASA’s Satellite Servicing Capabilities Off ice (SSCO) is planning its own ambitious servicing demonstration in 2020. Through the Restore-L mission, NASA plans to show that Landsat 7, a satellite launched in 1999 into a low Earth polar orbit and never designed for refueling, can be filled up at an orbiting service station.
“Refueling is difficult, which is part of the reason why NASA is tackling it,” said Ben Reed, SSCO deputy project manager. “Companies will be able to license the technologies NASA invents for satellite servicing and adopt techniques the space agency proves on orbit.”
By profiting from NASA’s experience, firms will be able to establish commercial on-orbit serving operations in low Earth or geosynchronous orbit. “The era of robotic servicing is going to dominate the next decade,” Reed said.
NASA, DARPA seeking to sync their satellite servicing efforts
NASA and the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency are discussing ways to expand coordination of their respective satellite servicing initiatives, including developing safety and operational standards for on-orbit servicing, NASA spokesman Dewayne Washington said by email.
NASA and DARPA are tackling the problem of servicing orbiting satellites in different ways, but they share some of the same goals as was pointed out in an April 21 report to NASA Administrator Charles Bolden by the NASA Advisory Council. The report asked whether NASA had “collaborated with DARPA to the maximum extent possible” given the cumulative government investment in satellite servicing initiatives of approximately $800 million.
Government and industry officials are quick to point out the differences between the NASA and DARPA programs. DARPA’s Robotic Servicing of Geosynchronous Satellites (RSGS) “seeks to develop technologies that would enable cooperative inspection and servicing in geosynchronous orbit and demonstrate those technologies on orbit within the next five years,” DARPA said in response to questions from SpaceNews. “Refueling is not one of the envisioned capabilities.”
In contrast, on-orbit refueling is a key element of NASA’s Restore-L mission, which is scheduled to reach NASA’s Landsat 7 Earth observation satellite in 2020. To accomplish the task, NASA will rely on autonomous robotics as well as tools people can manipulate remotely, said Ben Reed, Satellite Servicing Capabilities Office deputy project manager at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.
The NASA and DARPA programs also differ in their approach to industry involvement. DARPA plans to establish a public-private partnership for satellite servicing, which the agency hopes will lead to the creation of a commercial space robotics enterprise that charges fees to repair or upgrade satellites in geosynchronous orbit.
“DARPA seeks to engage a commercial partner with a strategic interest in this capability, and an interest in providing services to the Defense Department,” DARPA said. “DARPA also intends to separately initiate a robotics consortium to engage a broad community to discuss and evaluate technical robotic standards, best engineering practices, and cooperative approaches to conduct robotic servicing in geosynchronous orbit.”
NASA’s approach is more in line with its commercial cargo deliveries to the International Space Station. “NASA did it first and then contracted out for the service,” Reed said. In a similar manner, NASA plans to license the tools and techniques it develops for satellite servicing, he added.
In spite of those differences, the two agencies are cooperating. “NASA has coordinated with DARPA to ensure that our respective programs are complementary to each other, with each organization focusing on its respective mission requirements while transferring technology to industry as appropriate,” Washington said. “Goddard Space Flight Center and the Naval Research Lab are also collaborating on the technology development required for the demonstrations such as robotics and rendezvous and proximity operations.”
— Debra Werner