A first: New “helper” satellite extends life of failing geosynchronous IntelSat 901

DULLES, Va. – Feb. 26, 2020 – Northrop Grumman Corporation (NYSE: NOC) and the company’s wholly-owned subsidiary, SpaceLogistics LLC, have successfully completed the first docking of the Mission Extension Vehicle-1 (MEV-1) to the Intelsat 901 (IS-901) spacecraft in order to provide life-extension services. This historic accomplishment marks the first time two commercial satellites have docked in orbit and the first time that mission extension services will be offered to a satellite in geosynchronous orbit.

Artist rendering of capture .

MEV-1, launched Oct. 9, 2019, recently completed its orbit raising to an orbit approximately 180 miles above geosynchronous orbit. IS-901 is a fully operational communication satellite that is running low on fuel. Intelsat (NYSE: I) removed 901 from service in December 2019, transferring customers to other satellites in its extensive fleet, in order to raise its orbit to the same altitude as MEV-1 in preparation for docking. MEV-1 then completed the historic docking with IS-901 on February 25 at 2:15 a.m. ET. The combined spacecraft stack will now perform on-orbit checkouts before MEV-1 begins relocating the combined vehicle to return IS-901 into service in late March.

“Our Mission Extension Vehicle provides an innovative, satellite life extension service,” said Tom Wilson, president, SpaceLogistics LLC. “Together, Northrop Grumman, SpaceLogistics LLC and Intelsat have taken the first step in pioneering in-space logistics services for both commercial and government customers.”

“Intelsat has been at the forefront of innovation and game-changing space technology for decades. Pushing the boundaries of what’s possible is in our DNA here – that’s why we didn’t hesitate to sign up to be MEV-1’s first customer,” said Mike DeMarco, executive vice president and chief services officer at Intelsat. “We’re proud to make history with SpaceLogistics LLC and Northrop Grumman on this groundbreaking space milestone.”

Under the terms of the contract with Intelsat, MEV-1 will provide five years of life extension services to the IS-901 satellite before returning the spacecraft to a final decommissioning orbit. MEV-1 will then move on to provide mission extension services to a new client spacecraft.

MEV-1 was designed and built at the Northrop Grumman’s Dulles, Virginia, facility and utilizes a low-risk mechanical docking system that attaches to existing features on the client satellite. Once docked, MEV takes over the attitude and orbit maintenance of the combined vehicle stack to meet the pointing and station keeping requirements of the customer. MEV is designed for multiple docking and undockings and can deliver over 15 years of life extension services. The company is scheduled to launch its second Mission Extension Vehicle, MEV-2, later this year, which is contracted to provide service to a different Intelsat satellite.

Capture and docking sequence seen from the MEV1 – not the same as “anal probing” by aliens.

This life extension service is just the first step in an expansive technology development plan. The company’s vision is to establish a fleet of satellite servicing vehicles that not only extend the life of satellites, but provide other services such as inclination changes and spacecraft inspections, as well as use advanced robotics technology to perform additional functions such as in-orbit repair and assembly.

As the foundational architects of satellite technology, Intelsat operates the world’s largest and most advanced satellite fleet and connectivity infrastructure. We apply our unparalleled expertise and global scale to connect people, businesses and communities, no matter how difficult the challenge. Intelsat is uniquely positioned to help our customers turn possibilities into reality – transformation happens when businesses, governments and communities use Intelsat’s next-generation global network and managed services to build their connected future.

26 thoughts on “A first: New “helper” satellite extends life of failing geosynchronous IntelSat 901

  1. Wonderful technology.

    Can I order 30,000 of these to bring Musk’s Starlight satellites back down before they totally wreck our view of the sky?

    • The US air force has satelites that will dock with their target and explode, which has much the same effect.

      • Wrong, that will add to the massive amounts of space debris. We need to de-orbit the space junk…

      • If they can dock, no need to explode, which just causes debris. A good thruster firing sending, it tumbling into a decaying re-entry orbit would suffice.

      • You beat me to it, Hivemind. A few days ago people here were casting aspersions on Chinese space efforts. In the same vein, this looks like good cover for US military development of anti-satellite technology.

        Don’t get me wrong, the Chinese have been accused of this for many years. I don’t have to like it from either side, but it is a fact of life.

    • As I understand it, they’re designed to fall out of orbit after their useful lives are over. They’re low enough for atmospheric drag to take them down.

  2. Quite a game changer, considering the cost of replacing a satellite cf extending its life by ten plus years. Presumably, future satellites will be built with this capability in mind to make the process as simple as possible.

  3. I would have tried to find a brilliant way to refuel the failing satellite. Doh!

    My first thought was, no need for satellite repair technicians. Robots are adequate for most purposes. In fact, for most purposes, there is no need to send people into space at all. link

    As far as reliability goes, correct design goes a long way to getting around problems. If you have redundant the reliability of the mission is vastly improved. link

    • re: “I would have tried to find a brilliant way to refuel the failing satellite. Doh!”

      On refueling: Still have to “get there”, dock, etc … wonder now if Intelsat had this kind of service life extension in mind during the sat’s planning stage?

      Oh, and there are other considerations besides just the fuel for “station keeping”, like the reaction wheel or “spinning weight” AKA momentum wheel (and bearings that wear out) and associated gyroscopes that are used to maintain a satellite’s attitude minute to minute.


      • The Doh! was me realizing …

        … for every complex problem, there is a solution that is simple, obvious, and wrong. Mencken misquote

        Mencken didn’t say it quite like that, but I like the misquoted versions better because they are more generally applicable.

    • Vuk, what is CET?

      I’ve been listening to meteor scatter signal on a SW frequency (20 MHz) here in the US and have heard several longish ‘signals’ (meteor trail ‘returns’) this morning.

  4. I was on a DARPA project back in the mid 2000’s that was trying to do the same thing. We build a demonstration model and performed multiple successful demonstrations of a similar procedure.

    Glad to see this working.

  5. From the article: “MEV-1 was designed and built at the Northrop Grumman’s Dulles, Virginia, facility and utilizes a low-risk mechanical docking system that attaches to existing features on the client satellite.”

    I would love to see more details about this docking system.

    • Tom, the specific MEV mentioned in the above article (with associated photos) appears to engage the throat and nozzle exit cone of the bipropellant liquid apogee engine used for final geosynchronous orbit insert of the IS-901 comsat. It is not unlike the ball-in-cone initial docking engagement systems dating back to the Apollo era.

      More recent comsats that use Hall-effect or ion thrusters for final GEO circularization will not have these large nozzles and most likely not be located on the vehicle longitudinal axis. Therefore, next-generation MEVs will likely have to engage the geosat’s adapter ring interface that originally mechanically joined the spacecraft to the upper stage of the launch vehicle.

  6. Marvelous! The first toddling steps at providing ‘tractor’ and ‘refueling’ services for appropriately designed satellites! These capabilities are essential, for learning how to really support our industries in near-earth space and contemplate support services for solar system exploration.

  7. Since the helper satellite takes fuel to get its system, in addition to the fuel it uses to do the station keeping function of the satellite it is helping… wouldn’t it be better to just make the original satellite with a slightly larger fuel tank?

    I realize there may be other issues, such as a maximum weight capacity for the original launch vehicle. That may have palced a limit on the original satellite. Does anyone here know, or have access to, the history of this particular satellite, to offer an opinion on this?

    • Every read Holmes’ poem “The Wonderful One Horse Shay?”

      Holmes describes a cart the is designed and built of the finest material. All is well until the 100th Anniversary of it’s completion and all components fail together. No repairs, not rehab . . . stick in the proverbial fork . . . it’s done!on the 100th Anniversary of it’s completion — everything failed at

  8. Which raises another question: Are there military versions of this MEV-1? I imagine there are. From several different nations.

    This might also be a good way of cleaning up some of the junk in orbit around the earth.

    The future in space is going to be so interesting.

  9. Ever read “The Wonderful One Horse Shay,” by Oliver Wendell Holmes (Sr., the poet, not Jr., the US Supreme Court Justice)?

    Holmes describes a cart the is designed and built of the finest material. All is well until the 100th Anniversary of it’s completion and all components fail together. No repairs, not rehab . . . stick in the proverbial fork . . . it’s done as every component fails at once.

    But in real life, Design is Always a Compromise. According to WikiPedia, IntelSat 901 was launched June 10, 2001. At the time, without a doubt, it had an expected life. What was that? I have no idea but let’s use our imagination to consider how, whatever that was, this is a clever approach to improving investment returns. . . . .

    Perhaps, some situation up there resulted higher than expected fuel use to keep the bird on station.
    The owner, Intelsat, is faced with needing to make a huge investment [round number, $100Million] ahead of schedule in order to maintain service. But some clever engineer says, imagine a highly maneuverable “helper” satellite that could dock with our bird and keep it on station for, say, five years, avoiding the early replacement. As long as the cost of that Life Extension is less than the financial cost (considering time-value-of money, after-tax effect on Income Statement, etc) of early replacement, we’ll come out ahead!

    Alternatively, perhaps the expected life was 20 years and the fuel lever is exactly as expected but someone notes, “Darn shame, that’s birds in perfect shape . . . except it’ll run our of fuel {sometime soon]. If we could, say, send up a helper bird that docks and keeps the pair on station, we could delay replacement by [enough time to make it worthwhile].

    In other words, even as someone work to address your issue (what’s the right fuel load for the next satellite?), it’s perfectly proper to think about valuable it would be to keep this one, launched 20 years ago, in service for another five years.

    Anyway, that’s what I think.

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