In a historic first for satellite operations, a commercial spacecraft “helper” has docked with a working communications satellite to provide life-extension services.
The companies involved in the meetup — Northrop Grumman and Intelsat — hailed the operation, which took place Tuesday (Feb. 25), as the beginning of a new era that will see robotic spacecraft giving new life to older satellites that are low on fuel or require repairs.
Because launch costs constitute a large part of a satellite’s total price tag, the hope is that refurbishing aging satellites will eventually reduce the expense of services that satellites provide, such as telecommunications or weather monitoring.
In a historic first, Northrop Grumman’s privately built MEV-1 satellite servicing spacecraft captures the Intelsat 901 communications satellite on Feb. 25, 2020. MEV-1’s grappler (right) latched on to Intelsat’s engine nozzle at center.
The docking occurred Tuesday at 2:15 a.m. EST (0715 GMT). On one side of the meeting was a spacecraft called Mission Extension Vehicle-1 (MEV-1), overseen by Northrop Grumman and its subsidiary SpaceLogistics LLC; on the other was a telecommunications satellite, Intelsat’s IS-901, Northrop Grumman said in a statement.
This maneuver took place about 180 miles (290 kilometers) above geosynchronous orbit, which is at an altitude of 22,236 miles (35,786 km). That’s roughly 90 times higher than the International Space Station.
Intelsat IS-901 is low on fuel and was removed from service in December 2019 to prepare for this operation, according to the statement. Controllers raised the satellite’s orbit and awaited MEV-1’s arrival. Now that the pair have docked, MEV-1 will perform checkouts of IS-901, then push the satellite back to its normal orbit in late March, according to Northrop Grumman.