There are no real rules yet for repairing satellites in space

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The communication satellite The Intelsat 901 had lived a useful life, having transmitted signals back and forth since 2001. But by the end of 2019, it was running low on fuel. Without intervention, he would have to go and live in a “graveyard orbit” – a region remote from operational instruments. There, beyond the population of more lively satellites, Intelsat 901 helpless ellipse around the Earth, with other satellites possibly fully functional but operating on empty.

But fortunately for this Intelsat, an intervention was on the horizon. It was to become the target of the first Mission Extension Vehicle (MEV), a symbiotic spacecraft manufactured by a company called SpaceLogistics. The MEV is designed to fly to a dead satellite, dock, and use its own propulsion system to place and then maintain a spacecraft in normal orbit. Here it is: the resurrection. Or so the idea went. No private company, including SpaceLogistics, had done such a thing before.

The MEV had its chance at Intelsat 901 in February 2020. From a control room, Joe Anderson – a vice president of SpaceLogistics – watched the two satellites prepare to dock, feeling a touch of nostalgia. He had worked at Intelsat as a much younger man when 901 left Earth. He hadn’t seen the satellite for almost 20 years. But there, suddenly, it was, materializing in front of MEV-1’s camera like a ghost. He watched the SRM ram a probe into the engine of the old spacecraft, hook it up, and drag it into what would be a five-year embrace. Over the next half decade, the SRM will use its propulsion system to keep the operational satellite in the correct orbit. “I haven’t stopped smiling since February 25,” says Anderson. Which is quite a thing to say in 2020. With this success, SpaceLogistics has put its second MEV mission on hold, which launched in August and will connect with another Intelsat early next year.

MEV-1’s robot hand and chimeric grip represented the world’s first satellite service trade mission. Some experts see satellite maintenance as a big and soon to be booming industry that will reinvent the way humans make space. “Right now it’s all very ‘Build it, throw it, don’t touch it, throw it away,” says John Lymer, chief robotics and automation architect at Maxar, a company that , among other things, builds satellites and robot instruments, and observes the Earth. (Lymer notes that there are guidelines for “dumping” satellites in a timely and responsible manner.) But once services enter the chat, companies will instead be able to move spacecraft, give them a new one. life, inspect them, refuel them, or upgrade them. Satellites will be able to change and grow and get props, instead of just becoming obsolete.

But these pros have a flip side. A competitor or space government could technically move a satellite without permission, spy on something it doesn’t have to see, or add an accessory that blocks a key camera. That’s why transparency – like saying what you’re going to do, doing it, and then saying what you’ve done – is so important, according to Brian Weeden of the Secure World Foundation space sustainability think tank. SpaceLogistics set a good example, by publishing its MEV-1 plans in advance, for example. “There were a multitude of observers,” Weeden says, both government observers and amateurs. The company then released photos of the mission. “All of this was not taken for granted,” he says. “Space companies tend to be very reluctant in some ways to show photos of real satellites.”

Weeden runs a nonprofit group called Confers, which involves Lymer and Anderson. Confers – the Consortium for the Execution of Rendezvous and Maintenance Operations – aims to set standards for how these non-socially distant maintenance satellites (and all private satellites intended to maneuver close together) should behave. . Group members are companies with interests in the industry, from all over the world, who wish to collaborate on how to be on their best behavior.

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