New company formed to service satellites in-orbit


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Capitalism in space: MDA and SSL Loral today announced the formation of a new company, Space Infrastructure Services (SIS), that will service satellites already in orbit.

This partnership is based on the engineering being developed by SSL Loral under a DARPA research project.

The most important part of the announcement however is that SIS has also signed up its first customer.

The company also announced that SES, a world leading satellite-enabled solutions provider, with more than 50 GEO satellites and 12 MEO satellites on orbit, has entered into an agreement for an initial life extension mission with options for further missions. Under this agreement, SES will be the first commercial customer to benefit from satellite refueling that can be called up as needed with minimal disruption to spacecraft operation.

As it did with SpaceX, SES is aggressively supporting this new technology that will revolutionize space operations. Here the technology will allow them to repair their satellites, thus saving them the cost of replacing them with new satellites.

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9 comments

  • LocalFluff

    I think this satellite servicing idea is premature. Communication and earth observing satellites age quickly, economically, as better technology keeps coming forward. If anything, a servicing mission should replace their electronics, not refuel them. In space servicing has to compete with ever lower launch costs.

    To save a human space mission, or a unique object like the JWST or the ring in The Lord of the Rings, sure. Like the ISS and Hubble that were in reach of the Space Shuttle. But to for example fish up that Chinese satellite that went awry the other day, no that’s hardly mechanically orbitally profitable. Could as well launch a new satellite instead. When you really need servicing, the target is a non-cooperative object and hard to dock with. And all satellites have to be designed for servicing, making everything more expensive. I think this needs a bigger space future in order to make sense. It is not an enabler for better space flight now, but an add-on later on.

  • Orion314

    Agreed LF, like trying to refuel a Bic lighter…

  • wodun

    A satellite company thinks the investment is worthwhile, so maybe there is something to the idea. It could be they plan to still launch new satellites but also make the existing ones last longer. They could provide services to more customers in different locations and more satellites means more data throughput.

    There is also a national defense angle here.

    Are they getting money from DARPA for this?

    The vehicle will fully meet the specifications for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA)’s Robotic Servicing of Geosynchronous Satellites (RSGS) program, which is designed to inspect, repair, and augment geosynchronous satellites and plans to include a refueling payload to extend the life of satellites that are low on propellant.

    Didn’t Orbital ATK sue to stop this from competing with their MEV product?

  • Edward

    LocalFluff and Orion314,
    SES is one of the largest operators of GEO satellites and is one of SSL’s customers. It seems to me that these two companies think that this idea’s time has come, and they are willing to try it out. I think that it is a good idea for them to give it a try.

    It is like trying to refuel a $100 million Bic lighter that cost another $100 million to deliver. Maybe refueling is a less expensive option than spending another $200 million.

  • Wodun: You are correct on both counts. This new company is getting money from DARPA to develop the first test robot spacecraft. And Orbital ATK sued to stop it because they said it was the government picking favorites in an open competition.

  • Max

    That reminds me of an old story once of a cowboy who accidentally dropped a Silverdollar in the outhouse. He got mad and threw a $20 gold piece in the hole. The other Cowboys asked “why did you do that?” He turned to them and said “do you think I’m going down there for just 1 stupid dollar?”

    Refueling the satellites will keep them in their proper orbit, as long as the solar panels are still providing enough power, and the satellite is not tumbling, or the technology is not too far out dated, then the mission is likely to be cost-effective. Small electronic upgrades along with the refueling can be preformed on a number of satellites before returning to Earth.
    Large heavy upgrades like solar panels and gyroscopes would cost too much for the return on the investment so they would likely just replace. (probably using a second hand first stage to save money)
    I remember a prior conversation discussing how to capture a satellite for repairs or to move into a servicing orbit for later repairs or salvage. Such refueling trips would be made easier if done from a space station with materials supplied from a lunar base in the future… It pays to think ahead.

  • LocalFluff

    I suppose it satellite servicing be standard one day, and it might be a good idea to start working on it already to take leadership.

    Oxygen from the Moon is not well suited for refueling satellites. The alternative for long satellite life is to use electric propulsion with Xenon or such. Lunar oxygen would be used in large quantities to boost a spacecraft to interplanetary destinations.

  • Anthony Domanico

    Maybe there won’t be a big market for satellite servicing but I suspect DARPA’s interest in this capability is more about using it as an antisatellite weapon. This is just speculation on my part but just consider how such a device could easily be used to deorbit an enemy satellite. Am I alone in thinking along those lines? Our military is already very reliant on space based assets but China is also growing in capability in this arena.

    Localfluff,

    Your comment about lunar oxygen being used as satellite propellant reminded me that Deep Space Industries is working on thrusters that use water as propellant. This is a brilliant plan as it creates a market for water in orbit by creating satellites that will become “thirsty,” as the company put it. Once there is a market, there is justification for going and harvesting the water from near earth objects. I hope it works as planned.

  • pzatchok

    Well lets say you manufactured and launched 100 identical satellites into geosynchronous orbits. All modular and built to have almost everything replaced easily by a robot.

    Now you launch a robot ship with a huge amount of its own fuel and 100 extra fuel canisters for the other satellites.
    Could you now move this refueler from satellite to satellite in a preset order. no matter how long it takes. to reach each satellite so they all get refueled?

    Or would it be better to start from a station in LEO that can send out a refueler as it passes under each satellite? You can then recover the refueler on a later orbit.

    If this cannot be done then you will be launching robots from the ground. At that point you might as well just replace the whole satellite.
    Maybe using a robot second stage that can both carry the new replacement up and return the old one all the way to the ground like the falcons land.

    Any idea which way would be the cheapest energy and thus cost wise.

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