China tests space junk removal robot in geosynchronous orbit

China has apparently used a space junk removal robot to tug a defunct Chinese satellite out of geosynchronous orbit, thus opening that slot for future satellites.

Ground tracking by ExoAnalytic Solutions found that the robot, dubbed SJ-21, apparently docked with the defunct satellite on January 22nd. Since then:

In an email to Breaking Defense this afternoon, Flewelling [of ExoAnalytic] said the latest tracking data gathered earlier today from ExoAnalytic’s telescopes show the SJ-21 separating from the Compass G2, leaving the latter in the eccentric “super-graveyard drift orbit.” SJ-21 now has moved back to a near-GEO orbit.

The orbit places the defunct satellite in an orbit above the geosynchronous orbit satellites use, but in an orbit that is not typical.

This work is comparable to what the Japanese/American company Astroscale is presently testing in low Earth orbit, though it appears far more sophisticated. In fact, based on what SJ-21 has done so far, it appears China is far ahead of everyone else in developing in-orbit robotic servicing capabilities.

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.

Maxar cancels its DARPA satellite servicing mission

Capitalsm in space: Maxar today announced it is canceling its DARPA mission to develop and fly a robotic mission aimed at servicing geosynchronous satellites.

Maxar Technologies’ Space Systems Loral division terminated an agreement to build DARPA’s Robotic Servicing of Geosynchronous Satellites spacecraft Jan. 30, leading to a potential recompete of the program. Maxar said it also canceled a contract with Space Infrastructure Services, a company it created that would have commercialized the RSGS servicer after a DARPA demonstration, starting with an in-orbit refueling mission for fleet operator SES. Both were awarded in 2017.

…The cancellations come amid an ongoing divestment of SSL’s geostationary satellite manufacturing business, which has weighed down Maxar’s financial performance due to a protracted slump in commercial orders.

More background information can be found here.

It seems that the industry’s increasing shift from a few large geosynchronous satellites to small smallsats in low Earth orbit is the real cause of this decision. Maxar has realized that there won’t be that many satellites in the future to service, since the smallsat design doesn’t require it. Smallsats aren’t designed for long life. Instead, you send them them up in large numbers, frequently. Their small size and the arrival of smallsat rockets to do this makes this model far cheaper than launching expensive big geosynchronous satellites that are expected to last ten to fifteen years and would be worth repairing.

Thus, the business model for commercial robotic servicing has apparently vanished, from Maxar’s perspective. Other servicing projects however continue. From the second link:

Northrop Grumman said it plans to launch its first Mission Extension Vehicle to dock with Intelsat-901 and take over orbital station-keeping duties, extending the satellite’s service life by several more years.

Another up and coming player, Effective Space, is developing a satellite servicing vehicle called Space Drone, to provide satellite life extension services.

And SSL [a Maxar subdivision] is under contract to NASA to build the Restore-L satellite servicing spacecraft, slated to launch in 2020. Restore-L will be owned by NASA, however, and will operate in low Earth orbit, not the geosynchronous arc as was the plan for RSGS.

The last mission is intriguing because it could lay the groundwork for a robotic servicing mission to Hubble. It is being led by the same NASA division that ran all of the shuttle servicing missions to Hubble, and is using many of the engineering designs that division proposed when it was trying to sell a Hubble robot servicing mission back in 2004.

China’s mysterious SJ-17 satellite

The extensive maneuvers in space of China’s SJ-17 satellite, launched in December 2016 on the maiden flight of China’s Long March 5 rocket, have satellite trackers and defense officials intrigued and concerned.

Now China, as far as we know, hasn’t done anything nefarious with this satellite. But it has approached to within “a couple of hundred meters” to an apparently dead Chinese communications satellite recently parked in the so-called graveyard orbit. That is incredibly close by space standards. (Also, that comsat may or may not actually be a dead satellite.) And, as space geeks can tell from the above chart, it has executed “proximity operations” with at least four Chinese satellites.

What does all this mean? Are the Chinese testing space war maneuvers to allow them to get close an enemy satellite to move it or disable it? Since the maneuvers to service a satellite — giving it new fuel or trying tor repair it, for example — are virtually indistinguishable from an offensive maneuver, we don’t know. We do know that Strategic Command’s Gen. John Hyten has made it clear China and Russia are building weapons that include satellites, lasers and other ground-to-space weapons. Russia has deployed three Kosmos satellites that appear designed to approach other nations satellites and destroy them. China has launched Shiyan satellites, reportedly able to use a grappling arm to move satellites.

SJ-17 could be testing anti-satellite capabilities, where either it approaches close enough to a target so that when it explodes it takes the target with it, or it grabs that satellite to take it over. Or it could be testing robot orbital maneuvering for the purpose of future satellite servicing missions.

In either case, China is demonstrating that its future satellites will have very sophisticated maneuvering systems, capable of doing any number of things in orbit.

Robotic servicing demo resumes on ISS

After a two year hiatus, engineers have resumed experiments on ISS to demonstrate robotic servicing of satellites in space.

Known by its creative team as the “little ISS experiment that could,” RRM broke uncharted ground in 2011-2013 with a set of activities that debuted robotic tools and procedures to refuel the propellant tanks of existing satellites. Its second phase of operations, which took place in April and May and will resume again later in 2015, offers something entirely different and just as disruptive, says Reed. “We’ve outfitted the RRM module with new hardware so we can shift our focus to satellite inspection, instrument life extension, and even techniques for instrument swap-out,” says Reed. Such servicing technologies could open new possibilities for owners of spacecraft in low and geosynchronous Earth orbit, he says.

Many of the designs of this demo project are based on actual research satellites that need refueling or repair. Thus, if the robot can do the work on ISS, it is likely it can also do the work at the satellite itself.