When satellites reach the end of their useful life, they generally have two options to stay out of the way of operations: use their last remaining fuel to disintegrate in the Earth’s atmosphere, or move into a “graveyard orbit.” However, a new option is strongly emerging. The satellites, as if it were a car, will be able to receive in-orbit maintenancesomething that will allow them to continue operating for much longer.
We’re not talking about maintenance missions like the ones NASA did with the Hubble Space Telescope, where astronauts spacewalked to repair it. Instead, we are referring to the project of the American aerospace giant Northrop Grumman, which has reached an agreement with SpaceX to launch the second generation of its satellite maintenance system into space in geostationary orbit.
A familiar technology that evolves
In the past we have already talked about the first generation of this system, which consisted of attaching a “life extension vehicle” (MEV) to give new life to satellites that had run out of fuel. The second generation system, according to Northrop Grumman, will expand its capabilities to offer detailed robotic inspection, relocation and repair of commercial satellites.
The company claims that the technology is now sufficiently developed to offer these services in geostationary orbit permanently. And Northrop Grumman (through its subsidiary SpaceLogistics) already has its first customer to test its next-generation system and prove its reliability. This is Optus, Australia’s largest satellite owner and operator.
In the spring of 2024, Northrop Grumman will launch its next-generation system comprised of a robotic vehicle (MRV) and three life extension vehicles (MEPs) into space. As we can see in the example video above, the MRV will carry out a series of tests in orbit with its robotic arm while carrying out its main mission, install the MEP the Optus D3 satellite. If all goes according to plan, the device that was about to be taken out of service will have its useful life extended by six years.
However, the system can do more than couple its MEP to aging satellites. However, the other capabilities may be tested in future missions. Not a minor fact is that the robotic arm of the MRV was developed thanks to the DARPA project of the United States Department of Defense. Although Northrop Grumman has not said anything about it, this technology could also be used to meet the needs of the US government.
Northrop Grumman is a long-standing US defense and aerospace technology contractor, so a collaboration between the two involving in-orbit (or other outreach) satellite repair technology would not be surprising. Joe Biden’s administration has already raised concerns about China’s space musclewhich can already tow satellites into orbit and is even working on a robotic arm capable of “strangling satellites like prey.”
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George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism