Monday, March 19, 2018

US & UK Develop Satellite Servicing Spacecraft; Canada Will Likely Miss the Boat, Again

          By Brian Orlotti

In recent weeks, two space firms have made public their plans for deploying satellite servicing spacecraft within the next two years. These plans highlight another emerging market for the burgeoning commercial space industry. While one of these firms is UK based and the other US based, Canada has a connection with a third player, albeit a flimsy one.

On March 12th, 2018 the London, UK-based Effective Space Solutions (ESS) announced a $100Mln USD ($131Mln CDN) deal with an unnamed customer to dispatch two spacecraft to service two orbiting communications satellites in 2020.

As outlined in the March 12th, 2018 Space News post, "Effective Space reserves ILS Proton rideshare for two satellite servicers," the spacecraft, dubbed ‘space drones,’ will be launched into geostationary orbit on a Russian Proton Breeze M rocket where they will attach themselves to the two satellites.

The space drones, using their on-board fuel, will then take over from the communication satellites near-empty on-board propulsion, enabling them to remain in orbit and extend their lives.

The ESS Space Drone is a 400 kilogram spacecraft (measuring 1m x 1m x 1.25m) that uses a universal docking connector to attach itself to a host satellite and then engages its on-board electrical propulsion to take over the station keeping and attitude control maneuvers from the host’s propulsion system. In this role, the space drone’s duties can include station-keeping, relocation, deorbiting, orbit correction and inclination correction.

ESS also has other roles in mind for space drones. After the launch of the first two space drones in 2020, the company intends to launch up to six new drones annually, servicing low Earth orbit satellite constellations, cleanup of space debris and performing other logistical services.

On March 13th, just a day later, the SpaceLogistics subsidiary of Dulles, VA based Orbital ATK, announced at the Satellite 2018 conference in Washington, DC that its satellite servicing spacecraft, called Mission Extension Vehicle 1 (MEV1), had just passed a critical design review and will be able to launch by the end of 2018.

As outlined in the March 14th, 2018 Space News post, "Orbital ATK unveils new version of satellite servicing vehicle" as part of a deal signed with satellite communications giant Intelsat, the MEV1 will attach itself to Intelsat-901, a communications satellite in geostationary orbit for nearly 15 years that is running out of fuel.

The MEV1 will use its six-foot-long extender to connect to Intelsat-901’s liquid apogee engine nozzle, a standard component, to refuel the satellite. Intelsat has also agreed to lease MEV2, expected to be completed by mid-2020.

Intelsat is leasing MEV 1 for five years, with an option for two more years. With an expected lifespan of 15+ years, MEV 1 can detach itself from Intelsat-901 after the initial five-year lease and service other customers for ten or more years due to its large store of fuel. In geostationary orbit, this would comprise a large market of military and spy satellites. Orbital ATK intends to build five MEVs.

Also revealed at the same conference was the company’s next-generation satellite-servicing concept, dubbed Mission Extension Pods (MEPs). It envisions a spacecraft carrying ten to twelve fuel pods that can be placed on aging or failing satellites with a robotic arm. Each pod could then move its host into a new orbital position or provide it more fuel to extend its life. After the mother spacecraft dispenses all of its pods, it would then become an MEV able to attach itself to other satellites for up to fifteen years.

Orbital ATK aims to deploy MEPs by 2021.

Finally, San Francisco based Maxar Technologies (formerly Macdonald Dettweiler and Associates of Richmond, BC), via its Space Systems Loral (SSL) subsidiary, has entered into a partnership with the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and a second partnership with NASA (via its Restore-L program), to develop a robotic servicing spacecraft for geosynchronous satellites.

These partnerships will likely be the slowest moving, despite the current Restore-L tentative 2020 launch date, because of the government connections through DARPA and NASA, and the paperwork and oversight those connections engender. Of course, they are also likely to be the most lucrative, because of the cost-plus government contracts provided to SSL in order to fulfill the contracts.

Those partnerships and contracts spurred Orbital ATK to sue DARPA in 2017 on the grounds that the US government was unfairly competing with the private sector for the same service.

But as outlined in the July 17th, 2017 post, "Orbital ATK, DARPA, MacDonald Dettwiler, DigitalGlobe & Unleashing the Lobbyists," that lawsuit was ultimately dismissed even though, as can be seen here, there were and continue to be, at least two private companies (ESS and Orbital ATK) currently competing against the DARPA and NASA funded projects.

And while, as outlined in the December 16th, 2016 post, "MDA says No Sale of Canadarm Technology to the US Government in NASA RESTORE-L, DARPA RSGS or "Any Other" Project," this blog finds that claim dubious, so we concede a very slight Canadian connection with Maxar.

Of course, none of the benefits from SSL or from any other on-orbit satellite servicing program currently gearing up, are likely to benefit Canadian taxpayers, no matter what the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) might have promised as recently as 2013.

While on-orbit servicing of satellites is expected to be another lucrative market that can foster the growth of the commercial space industry, it also appears to be another market where Canada has fallen behind.

While US and UK firms prepare to service the heavens, Canada seems ready to miss the boat.

Brian Orlotti.

Brian Orlotti is a regular contributor to the Commercial Space blog.

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