Orbital ATK begins assembly of first orbital repair satellite


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Capitalism in space: Orbital ATK has begun the assembly of Mission Extension Vehicle 1, (MEV-1), designed to attach itself to commercial satellites and extend their life.

Controlled by the company’s satellite operations team, the MEV 1 uses a reliable, low-risk docking system that attaches to existing features on a customer’s satellite. The MEV-1 provides life-extending services by taking over the orbit maintenance and attitude control functions of the client’s spacecraft. The vehicle has a 15 year design life with the ability to perform numerous dockings and repositionings during its life span.

They hope to launch before the end of 2018. Meanwhile, the legal battle between Orbital ATK’s effort to build this satellite repair mission and DARPA’s effort to subsidize SSL’s own satellite repair mission continues in Congress with the introduction of two amendments favoring Orbital ATK.

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12 comments

  • Steve Earle

    I’m confused. Does the MEV dock to a satellite and remain docked thus “taking over the orbit maintenance and attitude control functions of the client’s spacecraft.”

    Or does it: “perform numerous dockings and repositionings during its life span”?

    I suppose it could do either or both, but why spend money on extra capabilities it may never use?

    Wouldn’t the smart approach be to build several cheaper MEV’s each designed for a specific failing satellite if that satellite will require the MEV to take over it’s station keeping functions for the remainder of it’s service life?

    Or will the MEV be more of an Orbital AAA and go from satellite to satellite spreading temporary guidance and cheer as it travels?

  • wodun

    I’m confused. Does the MEV dock to a satellite and remain docked thus “taking over the orbit maintenance and attitude control functions of the client’s spacecraft.”

    Or does it: “perform numerous dockings and repositionings during its life span”?

    From what I understand, both.

    Building one off MEV’s is unlikely to be cheaper than building many standardized MEV’s.

    Being able to do many dockings and re-positionings over 15 years shows how versatile it is. Prolonging the life of satellites is just one of many things the MEV can do. It is essentially a space tug. It can service one satellite and then leave to perform some other mission.

    IIRC, they said it could be used in cislunar space and I am sure there are any number of creative uses for it. Pairing one up with Cygnus opens up a lot of possibilities.

  • wodun

    Main Engine Cut Off dinged Orbital ATK for being short sighted on launching rockets without really understanding their business model. It is hard to claim they are a failure when they accomplished exactly what they intended with Antares and Cygnus.

    Building launchers is incredibly complicated and is dominated by companies with deeper pockets and institutional inertia. There is also only so much business to go around. Orbital ATK has taken a different approach to take advantage of an unserved niche. While complicated, these MEV’s are not as hard to build as an entire launch system. This product also capitalizes on future increased activity in space enabled by lower launch costs.

    They aren’t competing with SpaceX. They are leap frogging them to operate in a different environment and servicing the same customers but in different life cycle stages.

    This is exactly what we want to see happening. Specialization, differentiation, and expansion of products and services is exactly what the industry needs. Musk wants to go to Mars. Other people want to go to the Moon. Some want to stay in LEO. Getting into space is only the first step. We need an array of products and services that enable travel to different locations.

    Orbital ATK has an eye for the future here.

  • Edward

    Steve Earle asked: “I’m confused. Does the MEV dock to a satellite and remain docked thus ‘taking over the orbit maintenance and attitude control functions of the client’s spacecraft.’ Or does it: ‘perform numerous dockings and repositionings during its life span’?

    My takeaway was that it is capable of maintaining attitude control for one satellite at a time, but if the first satellite were to fail (die) then the MEV could dock with another satellite and extend its lifetime as well.

  • Steve Earle

    Thanks for the extra info guys. I guess 15 year lifespan doesn’t sound like a lot in terms of satellite life.

    My further guess based on what I am reading is that it will be highly likely that any given MEV will spend it’s entire 15 yrs docked to a single satellite.

    But it does make sense to have a standard design and also the option to re-use an already-orbiting MEV if possible. I just can’t see how it would ever make “numerous dockings” unless some satellites only needed a one-time boost or correction….

  • John E Bowen

    ” I just can’t see how it would ever make “numerous dockings” unless some satellites only needed a one-time boost or correction….”

    As others have noted, I think the correct answer is a combination of “all of the above.” Dock with one satellite, boost it, maintain stationkeeping for a few years, then disconnect, travel to another client satellite to help it out.

    It wasn’t mentioned in this article as far as I could tell, but I seem to remember that as far as the business end goes, Orbital ATK wants to pursue lease arrangements with its customers. So company XYZ leases the MEV capability for 10 years, say. It intends to use it to extend the lifetime of one of its important, money making assets. However, eight years in, another of their satellites, newer and potentially worth more in revenue, starts to fail, possibly one of those attitude control gyros. So the client company makes the decision to move the MEV to their newer asset. I’m just making all this up, of course – I’m not SES :) However, it illustrates that the customer is in control, and gets quite a bit of flexibility, always a good thing. Cheers.

  • Steve Earle

    Thanks for the added info John. That makes sense using it in that fashion and will probably be just how it happens in practice, one or two satellites helped per MEV.

    It will be interesting to see how it turns out and how much of the PR blurb actually happens. It all sounds good on paper…. ;-)

  • wayne

    The more I ponder the concept– I like it.

    How much fuel is thing going to carry? And will they be able to re-fuel it, in orbit?
    The whole orbital-mechanics stuff boggles my mind, but I do know, it takes a lot of energy to move around in orbit to get to these wayward satellites.

  • wodun

    The MEV could help position a satellite that didn’t reach the correct orbit. In a scenario like that, it could the go on to do something else.

    It also doesn’t just have to attach to a GEO satellite. What if it acted as a propulsion module for traveling in cislunar space? Then the satellite manufacturer could focus on other things or just have station keeping capabilities.

    What if someone wants to launch habitats or experiment bays and needs to move them around?

    What if we need to remove a hostile country’s satellite without causing a debris cloud?

    The MEV is a space tug. I am sure they will find more uses for it than just babysitting communications satellites.

    But what do they mean by 15 year life span? Is that how long it can last without being serviced? Because if it can be refueled and refurbished in space, then its lifespan could be far longer.

  • Steve Earle

    Wayne, I was wondering the same thing, how much fuel is needed to shift orbit and match speeds? I assume that the MEV’s fuel capacity is the major factor in it’s lifespan vs number of satellites it can service.

    Wodun, Maybe we’ll need to launch an MEV Mark 2 to service the MEV Mark 1? ;-)

  • Steve Earle

    BTW, I do think this could be a great thing. A “space tug” would be incredibly useful if it’s in the right place at the right time.

    Since the space tug has freedom of movement, and it’s major limit is fuel capacity, I wonder if it would make sense to launch an MEV and then also launch a large companion Fuel Container, a “gas station” in space that the MEV could return to as needed to re-fuel itself and/or take on fuel to transfer to thirsty satellites?

  • Edward

    wodun asked: “It also doesn’t just have to attach to a GEO satellite. What if it acted as a propulsion module for traveling in cislunar space? … The MEV is a space tug.

    Lockheed Martin had proposed a space tug called Jupiter as part of its Commercial Resupply Services 2 proposal. Orbital seems to be working on a similar concept with an emphasis on attitude control and station keeping for existing operational geostationary Earth orbit (GEO) satellites.

    wodun asked: “But what do they mean by 15 year life span?

    Oftentimes a GEO satellite’s solar arrays are one of the life-limiting factors, as their electrical productivity decreases with ultra violet light exposure. Technology improvements and propellant amount (weight) are also limiting factors. A satellite is generally designed for a specific lifespan, and GEO satellites are often designed with about 15 years in mind.

    I would expect the technology for MEVs to improve very rapidly, and the first one(s) will likely be obsolete within 15 years.

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