The United States military uses satellites to provide support and guidance in running their operations, which range from precision navigation and timing to intelligence data. The running of the satellites in space is faced with one big challenge: to timely service these space crafts, which are critical. This has prompted the Pentagon and players in the sector to innovate and use robots to conduct on-orbit satellite servicing and service extension work.

According to Jeremy Schiel, the acting chair of the Consortium for Execution of Rendezvous and Servicing Operations (CONFERS) executive committee, when he was joining the sector, the main challenge was refueling. Only eight firms were identified to perform this task, but in the past few years, the number has increased to over 45, with new firms being formed with each new month. Mr. Schiel stated this during the Consortium’s Global Satellite Servicing Forum.

The consortium, which was started in 2016, recently experienced splitting the members into two factions: one dealing with satellite servicing’s technicality and the other focusing on the policy element. On dealing with the policy, efforts are being put in place to develop a strategy that can convince regulators to approve the consortium’s activities as logical and consistent with their objectives and assist in informing the regulatory framework.

SpaceLogistics, which is a subsidiary of Northrop Grumman, successfully propelled its first satellite servicing craft, the Mission Extension Vehicle (MEV-1), in 2019. The craft landed successfully on Intelsat 90, a communication satellite at the geostationary orbit in the first quarter of 2020. The functions of the MEV-1 will be the provision of the satellite with services to increase its life for five years, according to Tom Wilson, who is the president of SpaceLogistics.

The design for the Mission Extension Vehicle is that it is set to dock with satellites whose fuel is depleting. After docking, the MEV controls the satellites’ orbit via its thrusters and fuel supply, a process the company refers to as docked life extension. After completing its services on one client’s satellite, the MEV undocks and moves on to the next client.

This successful mission of the MEV-1 on Intelsat 901 is a clear indication of the industry’s significant changes. This feat will be viewed as substantial proof of the seriousness and dedication in the business for all the key players in the sector as they try to advance it forward. Another craft, MEV-2, is on its way to Intelsat 10-02, and the craft is expected to reach its destination in late January. The docking is expected to take place between February and March.

By Adam