Orbital eyes first customer for in-space satellite servicing

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Orbital ATK Inc on Monday said it hopes to announce within the next six to eight weeks its first contract for a new “in space” service aimed at extending the life and uses of aging commercial satellites in geosynchronous orbit.

Tom Wilson, vice president of strategy and business development at Orbital ATK, said the company had invested tens of millions of dollars in the new capability, but gave no specific amount. He also declined to name the customer.

Wilson said each year about 70 satellites of the 380 communications satellites in orbit could potentially need servicing as they reached the end of the propellant that allows them to maintain their position in space.

Wilson said the company planned to launch its first ViviSat Mission Extension Vehicle (MEV) in 2018, and then carry out its first customer mission in early 2019 after an in-orbit checkout.

Orbital ATK eventually plans to operate 10 MEV spacecraft that will be able to dock with other satellites that are running out of fuel, repositioning and controlling them to continue serving their existing areas or move to new areas.

In seven to eight years, as robotic technology advances, the spacecraft could eventually transfer fuel to aging satellites, or deliver or swap their payloads, Wilson said, citing work on such capabilities by NASA and other agencies.

Each of the MEV satellites will be designed to last for 15 to 20 years, with the ability to dock and undock from other satellites 10 to 15 times, he said.

“It’s the start of a whole new market,” Wilson said.

The capability would eventually allow the government to send larger and heavier payloads into space since it could save the weight of fuel and send that up later.

Wilson said the company had been open about its development of the technology, and he did not expect criticism from Russia or China about its potential use to damage other satellites.

“This system was designed for commercial purposes,” he said.

The project was first begun by ATK in 2009, but got fresh momentum after Orbital merged with ATK 18 months ago. Orbital had a satellite that was ideally sized for the job, and was docking to other satellites through its NASA space station cargo resupply contract, Wilson said.

Orbital also had a role on a secret Air Force program that was first disclosed last year and includes docking capabilities, he said. He declined to provide any additional details.

(Reporting by Andrea Shalal; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)