Satellite ‘top-up tug’ a reality – almost

Intelsat is backing a revolutionary “satellite servicer”, a craft which is little more than an orbiting fuel tank to bring extra life to fading geostationary satellites. MacDonald, Dettwiler & Assoc (MDA) is prime contractor for the concept. MDA, a Canadian company, is best known for its ‘Canadarm’ robotic device used on the Space Shuttle.

MDA’s Space Infrastructure Services (SIS) satellite will use a Russian-manufactured satellite as the basic craft which will be launched in about four year’s time.  Intelsat is backing the project, and is likely to be the first client. Intelsat is supplying assorted services to MDA valued at more than $280m over the timeframe during which services will be delivered.

MDA’s Steve Oldham, president of the SIS division, says the initial design calls for a satellite carrying some 2,000 kgs of fuel (although the satellite’s fuel tanks will be capable of carrying more fuel than this) in order to have an overall weight of some 6,000 kgs, and the concept – in essence – calls for the satellite to (very) slowly fly to the problem craft, to robotically use its manoeuvrable arm to locate the satellite’s fuel cap and over a few weeks to then inject sufficient fuel to guarantee an extra five to seven years of typical extra life to the satellite.

The SIS servicer satellite could also be used to help unfurl jammed antenna, and other similar challenges including relocating a satellite to a new orbital position.

Oldham says that the first craft could help rescue many satellites from its initial flight. As rockets become more powerful then subsequent satellites could carry more fuel. The ‘SIS’ satellite itself would have a life of about seven years in orbit.

While this particular venture is a new one for MDA, in fact it has experience of more than 100 space-based robotic missions, including the famous rescue in 1993 of an Intelsat VI craft, when the Canadarm was used to retrieve the satellite from low Earth orbit following a failed Titan rocket launch.

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