Docking two satellites in space sounds like the plot of a science fiction movie, but that’s exactly what Northrop Grumman did to extend the life of one of Intelsat’s television satellites. IS-10-02 may not have an interesting name, but it is certainly important for Intelsat to be responsible for part of the company’s satellite television service in Europe, the Middle East, Africa and South America.
The problem is that satellites don’t last forever, but their maintenance has traditionally been off the table. Vendors are generally being forced to launch a new satellite instead, which is both expensive and accumulates more space debris in orbit around the earth. This has already raised concerns that projects like the International Space Station could face an increased risk of collisions with technical junk.
Instead, Intelsat and Northrop Grumman launched a second satellite that docked with IS-10-02 to provide lifetime extension services. Known as the Mission Extension Vehicle-2 or MEV-2, the vehicle essentially docks with a satellite that reaches the end of its on-board fuel supply and then uses its own engines and fuel to maintain geostationary orbit. In the image below, captured by MEV-2, you can see the Intelsat satellite when the two came together.
This is the second time the two companies have used the system. MEV-1 already docked with Intelsat IS-901 in February 2020: For the first time, two commercial satellites had reached this milestone. At this point, however, both IS-901 and MEV-1 met outside of the Intelsat satellite’s usual geosynchronous orbit. In addition, the IS-901 climbed to an orbit of approximately 180 miles, where it met MEV-1.
This time MEV-2 met with IS-10-02 without the Intelsat satellite having to reroute. This is an important point as it took about three months for IS-901 to extend its orbit for the first time and forcing Intelsat to switch TV customers to a different satellite.
The two Mission Extension Vehicles each have fuel for around fifteen years of service. Northrop Grumman’s agreements with Intelsat will serve as propulsion and altitude controls for each of the television satellites for five years. Thereafter, the MEVs are disconnected and continue to provide these services to other customers.
In the meantime, further variations of the theme are in preparation. Mission Extension Pods, for example, will be smaller and cheaper versions that only allow orbit control. They are installed by the MRV or Mission Robotic Vehicles shown in the render above, which not only make orbital adjustments, but can also install new hardware for satellites that are already in use. Northrop Grumman expects to launch the first MRV and MEPs in 2024.
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