Issue #1(27) 2021 Astronautics

Satellite servicing comes of age

Visible near-field image of Intelsat 901, taken by MEV-1 from a distance of about 15 m, just prior to docking.
Visible near-field image of Intelsat 901, taken by MEV-1 from a distance of about 15 m, just prior to docking.
Joseph Anderson SpaceLogistics LLC, Dulles, USA

When Joe Anderson first informed ROOM readers of SpaceLogistics’ intentions to pioneer the market for satellite servicing in his article ‘Extending the life of geostationary orbit satellites, (ROOM #21, Autumn 2019), the company’s MEV-1 was just about to launch from Baikonur, in Kazakhstan, in what turned out to be a picture-perfect launch. Here, he provides an update on the mission and a personal view from mission control.

Imagine, for a moment, a scene from a science fiction movie: 36,000 kilometres over the sunlit Pacific Ocean, two satellites glide toward each other through the inky blackness of space. One of these satellites is nearly 20 years old and after a long, productive lifetime beaming television signals to millions of customers, it has run out of fuel and is drifting in orbit. The other, a brand new satellite, is the first of its kind: a servicing spacecraft designed specifically to rendezvous and dock with other satellites.

A room full of engineers, scientists and technicians watch a live feed from the servicer as it slowly approaches the communications satellite, centimetre-by-centimetre, over a period of hours, as they orbit the Earth at more than 11,000 km/hr. Every few seconds, the screens in mission control are updated with new images from one of the servicer’s three imaging systems: visible, infrared, and laser radar (LIDAR). Meanwhile, the servicer’s flight computer builds a model of the relative positions in space, constantly updating it as the servicer creeps ever closer.

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