Space

Northrop Grumman bullish on future of on-orbit servicing

After successfully completing the first docking of two commercial spacecraft on orbit and returning their client satellite back to service, Northrop Grumman is bullish on the market for its new satellite life-extension service.

“When we look at the market, we are bullish, but cautious that this is the first of a kind, and we want to continue to march through milestones of succession that would lead us to believe that we can accomplish this much broader set of servicing missions,” Northrop CEO and President Kathy Warden in an April 29 earnings call. “Certainly life-extension servicing, which we have already accomplished with the Intelsat satellite, is something we feel comfortable will be a robust and growing market for us.”

Northrop subsidiary SpaceLogistics’ first-ever life-extension mission began in October, when the company launched its Mission Extension Vehicle, or MEV-1, into orbit. The spacecraft is designed to dock with satellites nearing the end of their service life due to depleted fuel stores. By attaching itself to the client satellite, MEV-1 uses its own propulsion systems in lieu of the satellite’s, providing years of additional movement.

In February, MEV-1 successfully docked with the company’s first client satellite — Intelsat 901 — in the geosynchronous graveyard, which is about 300 kilometers above the geosynchronous orbit where satellites go to die.

On April 17, SpaceLogistics and Intelsat announced that MEV-1 had returned the satellite back to orbit, where it is once again providing service to customers. MEV-1 is expected to keep the satellite in service for five more years before disposing of it in the geo graveyard.

In an interview with C4ISRNET in March, Joe Anderson, vice president of operations and business development for SpaceLogistics, said the company is seeing more government interest in its capabilities following the successful docking.

“On the government side, we’re continuing to see more interest, more awareness of this capability. I think the players are starting to really take this seriously. It’s now been proven. It’s real. We can do this. We need to start planning this into our architectures,” Anderson said. “I do see that sort of shift happening.”

The U.S. Space Force’s Space and Missile Systems Center is working with the company on feasibility assessments for four service-life extension missions for national security satellites.

And not long after the docking took place, Northrop announced that the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency had selected the company as its commercial partner on the Robotic Servicing of Geosynchronous Satellites program — the agency’s initiative to develop a robotic arm to be used in space. SpaceLogistics’ Mission Robotic Vehicle will serve as a host to the two robotic arms developed by DARPA, enabling it to perform a suite of new on-orbit activities, such as repairs, installations and assembly.

During Northrop’s earnings call, Warden noted that collaboration would open up the market for more types of on-orbit servicing.

“The robotic servicing will allow us to provide other servicing functionality,” she said. “So it opens up the market in that regard and clearly is an indicator that we would be able to service not only commercial, but potentially government satellites as well."

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