Second life in heaven how businessmen resurrect satellites

(ORDO NEWS) — Near space has long ceased to be an alluring goal, to which they broke through, regardless of the costs. This is the arena of business, military preparations and the solution of quite earthly problems. And now, before our eyes, a new, but such a long-awaited industry is being born – space logistics.

Let’s imagine the following dialogue:
– My tire burst yesterday, I left the car and bought a new one.
I also recently bought a new car: I ran out of gas.
It is hard to imagine a more phantasmagoric exchange of remarks. Is this theater of the absurd? No, this is space travel.

If something breaks down in a spacecraft, there is no one to fix it. Exceptions are extremely rare. Yes, American astronauts repaired the Hubble several times (the main orbiting telescope of all astronomy could afford it). Yes, once they put a new engine on an Intelsat 603 communications satellite that did not reach the target orbit.

But repairs by astronauts are so difficult and expensive that it is justified only in exceptional cases. In addition, Intelsat 603 managed to be repaired precisely because it remained close to the Earth. People never fly into the geostationary orbit, where communication satellites usually work – it is too far away.

However, the real scourge of spacecraft is not “punctured tires”, but “run out of gasoline”. Of course, a satellite is not a car, but it also needs fuel. The engine has to be turned on in order to correct the orbit and orientation of the apparatus in space.

Alas, refueling in space is still in acute shortage (in fact, they do not exist at all). Therefore, spacecraft, sometimes worth hundreds of millions of dollars, have to be decommissioned as soon as they run out of fuel. Often, at the same time, all systems work, solar panels provide energy, it would seem, live and rejoice for many more years.

This applies not only to satellites of the Earth. For example, Dawn orbiting Ceres and exploring the Cassini system of Saturn suffered the same fate. Having lost the ability to control its orbit, Cassini could eventually fall on one of the satellites of Saturn, and Dawn on Ceres.

But there is its own organic matter, and in the system of Saturn, perhaps, life. To pollute such an environment with earthly organic “gifts” would be unacceptable.

Therefore, Dawn, on the remaining fuel, was transferred to a very high orbit, from where it simply “does not see” a small planet (but it will never fall on it). And the Cassini was completely burned, sending it straight into the atmosphere of Saturn.

Losing research interplanetary probes is especially hard. A retired communication satellite will immediately be replaced by a new one, since this is a profitable investment.

But wait for new flights to Ceres or Saturn: there are much more interesting objects for interplanetary expeditions than the money allocated for them. So the curtailment of quite viable missions was, although expected, but a painful blow directly to the tender hearts of astronomers.

However, the owners of commercial satellites are also not eager to throw money into the solar wind. Therefore, the need to bring gas stations and car services into space is ripe and overripe.

Resurrect in orbit

The first real step in this direction was made by the Northrop Grumman Corporation and its “daughter” with the speaking name SpaceLogistics LLC. They offered the market their brainchild: “Vehicle for the extension of the mission” (Mission extension vehicle, or MEV).

In fact, this is a space tug. It docks with a satellite that has run out of fuel and takes control of its orbit and attitude. It is important that the “ward” does not need any docking nodes. MEV securely attaches to the satellite, literally clinging to what is.

By the way, MEV can also be used as a cleaner for satellites that have long and firmly turned into space debris.

Alexander Rodin, head of the MIPT unmanned aerial vehicles laboratory, said in his comment: “This is a highly anticipated technology, and the problem here is not at all the high cost of satellites, but the fact that it is very crowded in geostationary orbit today, it is literally crammed with operating and decommissioned devices. Therefore, robotic manipulations are absolutely necessary there.”

Note that it is now customary to take satellites from geostationary orbit to a graveyard orbit on the remnants of fuel. It is not used for anything other than warehousing devices that have served their purpose. But while astronautics was growing to the principle of “crawl to the cemetery before you die”, the geostationary orbit was littered with order.

Telecommunications giant Intelsat, which operates five dozen satellites, has become interested in Space Logistics’ proposal. The first MEV docking (and, by the way, the first commercial docking in history) took place on February 25, 2020.

The MEV 1 space tug took custody of the Intelsat 901 satellite, which was decommissioned in 2019 due to lack of fuel. An unexpected rescuer extended his life by another five years. Then he will take the ward to the graveyard orbit and undock. After that, MEV 1 will still have fuel left to service the next satellite.

Note that before docking, Intelsat 901 was raised 180 kilometers just in case. If the docking had ended in a collision, space debris would not have entered the much-needed geostationary orbit.

And already on April 12, 2021, the second device of the same series, MEV 2, made a holiday gift for space lovers. He took in tow the Intelsat 10-02 satellite, which he will also take care of for five years. And for the first time, this operation took place directly in geostationary orbit, and not in the “sandbox” above it.

Reach out to your companion

Now Space Logistics is taking its services to the next level. Using the MEV as a platform, the engineers created the “Robotic vehicle [for space] missions” (Mission robotic vehicle, or MRV). The MRV has a manipulator arm that can dock additional modules to the satellite. In principle, it could also perform diagnostics and even minor repairs.

The first buyer of the new service was Optus, Australia’s largest owner of communications satellites. According to the contract, in 2024 the MRV will launch on a SpaceX rocket. In addition to the “handy” robot, there will be three 400-kilogram MEP modules on board the rocket.

MEP stands for Mission extension pod, which can be translated as “mission extension pod”. This is a “poor man’s” space tug. It performs fewer types of orbit correction operations than MEV. Nevertheless, he is also able to extend the operation of a typical satellite weighing 2 tons by six years.

The MEP module is inserted directly into the nozzle of the regular satellite engine (we ask Mr. Freud to refrain from commenting!). This process is shown in the video below.

And already on April 12, 2021, the second device of the same series, MEV 2, made a holiday gift for space lovers. He took in tow the Intelsat 10-02 satellite, which he will also take care of for five years. And for the first time, this operation took place directly in geostationary orbit, and not in the “sandbox” above it.

Reach out to your companion

Now Space Logistics is taking its services to the next level. Using the MEV as a platform, the engineers created the “Robotic vehicle [for space] missions” (Mission robotic vehicle, or MRV). The MRV has a manipulator arm that can dock additional modules to the satellite. In principle, it could also perform diagnostics and even minor repairs.

The first buyer of the new service was Optus, Australia’s largest owner of communications satellites. According to the contract, in 2024 the MRV will launch on a SpaceX rocket. In addition to the “handy” robot, there will be three 400-kilogram MEP modules on board the rocket.

MEP stands for Mission extension pod, which can be translated as “mission extension pod”. This is a “poor man’s” space tug. It performs fewer types of orbit correction operations than MEV. Nevertheless, he is also able to extend the operation of a typical satellite weighing 2 tons by six years.

The MEP module is inserted directly into the nozzle of the regular satellite engine (we ask Mr. Freud to refrain from commenting!). This process is shown in the video below.

“Any spacecraft capable of automatically approaching and performing manipulations with other vehicles in orbit is also a tool for destroying the space infrastructure of a potential enemy.

Star wars of robots is no longer a fantasy, but a reality that must be reckoned with and, of course, take measures to protect your interests,” notes Alexander Rodin.

Well, these are two sides of the same coin. Side by side with civilian logistics, the military is also striding into space. Recall that Naked Science recently spoke in detail about this new threat.

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