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Reports out of the Satellite 2016 event in Washington DC suggest that satellite giant Intelsat is close to signing what is being described as a “pioneering” contract for an in-orbit ‘Space Tug’.
The plans will see Intelsat link with Orbital ATK. They are not yet confirmed but the last time Intelsat looked at this they were talking about an automated spacecraft that would attach itself to an ailing satellite, perhaps with depleted fuel reserves, and thus give the original satellite many more years of useful service.
The reported manufacturer is Orbital ATK. The plan calls for a test vehicle to be launched as soon as late 2018 and be ready for work within a few months.
A year ago Intelsat’s Thierry Guillemin (EVP/CTO) spoke enthusiastically about space tugs (or more correctly Mission Extension Vehicles or Orbital Transfer Vehicles) as did SES’s CTO Martin Halliwell.
Back in early 2012 Intelsat had a similar scheme in place with Canadian space technology company MacDonald Detwiler (which built the famous ‘’Canadarm’ remote arm for the Space Shuttle).
Orbital ATK is already manufacturing docking satellites for the International Space Station (in particular its Space Station Cargo Re-supply vehicles) and has developed its ViviSat “in-orbit satellite life extension and maneuvering services to geosynchronous satellite operators using its Mission Extension Vehicle (MEV). The MEV docks with customers’ existing satellites providing the propulsion and attitude control needed to extend their lives.”
The ViviSat MEV provides a 15-year design life and sufficient fuel to enable well in excess of 15 years of station kept life while docked with a typical 2000 kg geosynchronous satellite. The rendezvous, proximity and docking systems of the MEV allow for numerous robotic dockings and undockings during the life of the MEV.
In other words, the space tug could ‘rescue’ an ailing satellite, keep it on station for sufficient time for the satellite operator to build and launch a replacement, upon which the space tug could detach itself and move on to the next rescue mission or wait in space, just like a car rescue service, until a client suffers a problem and needs rescuing.