In-space satellite servicing proves successful in record-breaking orbital spacecraft operation

A demonstration mission of Northrop Grumman’s first-ever Mission Extension Vehicle (MEV-1) has proven successful, extending the life of an Intelsat satellite by five years. The mission involved Northrop’s MEV docking with Intelsat’s IS-901 satellite in orbit on February 25, after which it altered the orbit of the Intelsat spacecraft to bury it more operating time.

While the original docking occurred in late February, the MEV has spent the intervening time altering the orbit of IS-901, and Intelsat has since also transitioned some of its customers to the previously inactive satellite for use of its communication services. It’s now providing “full service,” the companies announced, and will continue to do so for another five years, before the MEV returns it to its decommissioned orbit for final retirement. At that time, MEV-1 will become available again for other space tug missions, able to perform the same service for another satellite.

This is a big step in terms of orbital sustainability and in-space servicing and life extension, particular for Northrop Grumman, which can now offer this as a service. For Intelsat, the company sees it as a “cost-effective and efficient way” to continue to offer uninterrupted service and address customer needs without requiring building and launching an entirely new satellite, the release notes.

There’s been a shift in the industry away from large, geosynchronous satellites to fleets of small, agile low-Earth orbit smallsats, owing to cost considerations. Orbital servicing could help provide another option, but for now it’s likely to appeal more to legacy space industry satellite operators than to the newer constellation startups.

Northrop is planning a second MEV spacecraft to launch to service another Intelsat satellite later this year, however, so it does look like it could be a market in the near-term, and it could change the economics of larger spacecraft in future, too.