Thursday, December 14, 2017

FCC Begins Regulatory Approval Process for Orbital ATK Satellite Servicing Mission to Intelsat-901

          By Henry Stewart

The US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has signed-off on at least part of the paperwork required to approve Dulles, VA based Orbital ATK’s proposed upcoming satellite servicing mission to rendezvous and dock with the Intelsat 901 (IS 901) communication satellite.

Orbital ATK CEO David W. Thompson and Intelsat CEO Stephen Spengler announce their satellite servicing agreement at the 32nd Space Symposium, which which was held from April 11th - 14th, 2016 in Colorado Springs, CO. As outlined in the April 12th, 2016 Space News post, "Orbital ATK signs Intelsat as first satellite servicing customer," the two companies scheduled their first launch in 2018 and so far at least, seem to moving forward according to plan. According to the post, "MEV-1 will first dock with a retired satellite in a graveyard orbit above stationary orbit to test its systems, then dock with an active Intelsat satellite to extend its life for five years." Photo c/o Chuck Bigger.

The IS 901 was the first of nine new Intelsat satellites launched in June 2001. It currently provides Ku-band spot beam coverage for Europe, as well as C-band coverage for the Atlantic Ocean region and is reaching the end of its operational life, but could potentially be refueled for several more years of service. The satellite is operated by US and Luxembourg based Intelsat.

As outlined in the December 12th, 2017 Space News post, "FCC begins approval of Orbital ATK satellite-servicing mission for Intelsat-901," the proposed mission is intended to test out the new Mission Extension Vehicle-1 (MEV-1), a satellite servicing vehicle operated by Orbital ATK subsidiary Space Logistics Services, which was set up specifically to deal with Orbital ATK’s satellite-servicing business.

However, components of the mission are still to be decided. According to the post:
The commission has, for now, withheld permission on a request from Space Logistics LLC, the subsidiary handling Orbital ATK’s satellite-servicing business, for relocating Intelsat-901 alongside another Intelsat satellite. 
The agency also deferred on a request to undock MEV-1 from Intelsat-901 at the end of that mission and to return MEV-1 to a graveyard orbit to await its next assignment.
The FCC licence is only one of the steps required to gain government approval for the mission, According to the article:
Satellite servicing is a relatively new area for regulators, consequently requiring a lot of trailblazing by Orbital ATK. (Joe) Anderson, (the VP of business development and operations for Space Logistics) said the company has been in a dialogue with the FCC, the U.S. State Department and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) for several years, and those discussions concluded that the FCC would be the licensing body for launch, deployment, docking and TT&C.
Several other hurdles remain to be jumped in order to obtain the necessary regulatory approval, but all sides are optimistic that a solution can be found before the planned launch of the MEV-1 in late 2018.

As outlined most recently in the July 17, 2017 post, "Orbital ATK, DARPA, MacDonald Dettwiler, DigitalGlobe & Unleashing the Lobbyists," Orbital ATK isn't the only private firm developing the capability to service satellites in orbit.

In fact, Orbital ATK spent a surprising amount of the last year in pitched battle with then Richmond, BC based Macdonald Dettwiler (MDA), its US MDA subsidiary Space Systems Loral (SSL) and then Westminster, CO based Digitalglobe to prevent the US government from providing a variety of subsidies to it's competitors, in the form of Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) grants and NASA Restore-L contracts, in order to build much the same sort of satellite servicing technology.

Orbital ATK argued that the US government provided an unfair advantage to MDA/SSL/Digitalglobe by providing the DARPA/NASA funding when the private sector was already competing in the area. US courts rejected that argument.

But while both MDA and Digitalglobe are now operating under the banner of San Francisco, CA based Maxar Technologies, the partnerships and DARPA/NASA funding remain intact.

Orbital ATK perseveres with its program, at least for now. It will be interesting to see which company manages to eventually pull ahead in this marathon.

Henry Stewart is the pseudonym of a Toronto based aerospace writer.

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