Northrop Grumman to launch new satellite serving mission in ’24 on Falcon 9

Capitalism in space: Northrop Grumman yesterday announced that it has awarded the contract for the first launch of its Mission Robotic Vehicle (MRV) — designed as a robot capable of installing multiple mission extension pods (MEP) on satellites — to SpaceX for a launch scheduled in 2024.

Once in orbit each MEP [Mission Extension Pod] is captured by the MRV and stowed for transport to the client satellite. The MRV rendezvous and docks with the client to install the MEP, which operates like an auxiliary propulsion device and uses its own thrusters to maneuver the client vehicle. Then the MRV detaches itself and moves on to grab another MEP for the next customer. The MRV is designed to stay in orbit for 10 years.

Anderson said the company expects to install as many as 30 propulsion pods over the life of the MRV.

“Our manifest for the MRV is full through mid 2026,” he said. Besides Optus, five other customers have signed term sheets to purchase mission extension pods.

Essentially, Northrop Grumman upgraded its Mission Extension Vehicle design to separate the repair section from the robot that installs it so that it is cheaper to launch everything. It can now launch multiple lighter and smaller repair pods as needed, with the robot already in orbit ready to go.

Northrop Grumman says six customers have bought missions using its upgraded orbital repair robot

Capitalism in space:A Northrop Grumman official has revealed that it already has six customers willing to buy missions using its upgraded orbital repair robot to fix orbiting satellites that are presently defunct due to lack of fuel.

Unlike the company’s first robotic repair satellites, dubbed Mission Extension Vehicles (MEV), the Mission Robotic Vehicle (MRV) for these new contracts will not dock directly to the satellite, but use a robot arm to attach an extension pod to each.

The primary commercial mission of the MRV is to install small propulsion devices known as mission extension pods. One of these units is inserted in the back of a client satellite propulsion system, adding six years of life to most geostationary satellites, he said.

The six customers have signed term sheets for seven mission extension pods, Anderson said. Once contracts are firmed up the company will be able to disclose their names.

The first MRV launch in 2024 will carry three pods. “With these six customers, the MRV manifest is currently filled through mid-2026,” he said. The MRV is expected to have a 10-year service life.

This MRV system is far more cost effective than the MEV, since the latter can only repair one satellite, while the former can fix several with a single launch.

Both Northrop Grumman and Astroscale (see my previous post) are demonstrating the emergence of a new cottage satellite industry, the repair of old satellites and the removal of space junk, all for profit.

Northrop Grumman’s MEV-2 successfully completes docking to commercial satellite

MEV-2 about 50 feet away from satellite

Capitalism in space: Northrop Grumman today announced that its second Mission Extension Vehicle (MEV-2) has successfully docked with an Intelsat geosynchronous communications satellite.

Northrop Grumman is the only provider of flight-proven life extension services for satellites, and this is the second time the company has docked two commercial spacecraft in orbit. The company’s MEV-1 made history when it successfully docked to the Intelsat 901 (IS-901) satellite in February 2020. Unlike MEV-1, which docked above the GEO orbit before moving IS-901 back into service, MEV-2 docked with IS-10-02 directly in its operational GEO orbital location.

…Under the terms of Intelsat’s satellite life-extension servicing contract, MEV-2 will provide five years of service to IS-10-02 before undocking and moving on to provide services for a new mission.

The image, provided by Northrop Grumman, was taken by MEV-2’s infrared wide field of view camera when it was still about 50 feet away from the Intelsat satellite. You can see the Earth in the background. As I understand it, MEV-2 uses the satellite’s own engine nozzle as a docking port, which is the smallest circular feature in the center of the satellite. If you look close you can see the nozzle’s shadow on the right.

MEV-2 about to dock with communications satellite to extend its life

Capitalism in space: Northrop Grumman’s second Mission Extension Vehicle (MEV-2) is presently doing the last rendezvous maneuvers in the vicinity of one of Intelsat’s operating geosynchronous communications satellites in anticipation to its docking, when it will extend that satellite’s life by up to five years.

This is the second MEV to fly. The first successfully docked with a defunct 19-year-old satellite and brought it back into operation.

Meanwhile, in the Ukraine a new startup is proposing to use an upgrade of the automatic rendezvous and docking system once used by Progress and Soyuz capsules to create its own variation of MEV.

Kurs Orbital is raising $6.5 million in its first investment round this summer to start the demonstration vehicle that will rendezvous with an uncooperative object in low Earth orbit, he said. “I think that we will be on schedule for 2023 with a demonstration mission.”

The company plans to raise more money over the next few years to build a fleet of four vehicles to start offering de-orbiting services by 2025. Usov said de-orbiting is the low hanging fruit because it is a way to immediately help satellite operators make money.

Operators currently take geostationary satellites out of service to a graveyard orbit six to eight months before they are out of fuel. De-orbiting services would allow operators to keep the satellites in operation for several additional months and continue to generate revenues, Usov said. Those extra revenues would more than pay for the $10 million to $15 million de-orbiting service.

If successful, this company will be the third attempting to enter the robotic satellite serving business, with a number of others also aiming to make money removing space junk.

Ariane 5 launches three payloads into orbit

Capitalism in space: Arianespace’s Ariane 5 rocket today successfully launched three payloads into orbit, two communications satellites and Northrop Grumman’s second Mission Extension Vehicle (MEV-2), a robot designed to bring dead communications satellites back to life.

After several months of orbit-raising and phasing maneuvers, the MEV-2 mission will perform a similar docking and mission extension service [as done by the first MEV] beginning in 2021 for the Intelsat 10-02 communications satellite, which launched in 2004. MEV-2 will provide Intelsat 10-02 with five additional years of useful service life, helping it deliver media and broadband services across Europe, the Middle East, Africa and South America.

This was only Arianespace’s third launch this year, tying them with Japan but not enough to get on the leader board. The leaders in the 2020 launch race:

19 China
12 SpaceX
9 Russia
4 ULA

The U.S. still leads China 20 to 19 in the national rankings.

Northrop Grumman about to launch second mission extension robot

Capitalism in space: The success of Northrop Grumman’s first Mission Extension Vehicle (MEV-1) to dock with a dead communications satellite and bring it back to life has set the stage for the second MEV, set for launch on an Ariane 5 before the end of the month.

For MEV-1’s mission, Intelsat decommissioned the 901 satellite and moved it up into the GEO graveyard for rendezvous and docking operations.

However, the main result of the excellent performance of MEV-1 and a full demonstration of the docking and capture process is that MEV-2 will not be required to rendezvous with its target in the GEO graveyard. Nor will the satellite be deactivated. Instead, MEV-2 will move directly to the main operational GEO belt and approach Intelsat 10-02 while the satellite is still actively relaying telecommunications. “Intelsat has confirmed their desire on the next MEV, MEV-2, to do the docking directly in GEO orbit. They will be maintaining customer traffic as we do the docking with MEV-2,” noted Mr. Anderson.

This new approach, which was always the goal for future MEV operations, was aided in large part by confirmation to a high degree of accuracy that all of MEV’s systems worked as planned during Intelsat 901 operations.

The article notes that this concept could even be extended to sending a robot to Hubble to provide it accurate pointing capability when its last gyroscopes finally fail, thus extending the life of that space telescope even farther beyond its original planned fifteen year lifespan that ended in 2005.

DARPA finally picks Northrop Grumman for satellite servicing

Capitalism in space: Following the successful docking of Northrop Grumman’s Mission Extension Vehicle-1 (MEV) to a decommissioned commercial communications satellite on February 27, 2020, DARPA has finally selected that company as its partner in its government-funded satellite servicing program.

For reasons that have been puzzling, DARPA previously rejected the MEV and chose in 2017 as its partner what was then a mostly Canadian company, causing legal protests. That company however backed out of the program in January, and with the success of MEV, DARPA could no longer justify its strange aversion to Northrop Grumman.

Northrop Grumman had planned to market MEV to commercial companies. The infusion of support from DARPA will accelerate that process.