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Satellite Life Extension: Reaching for the Holy Grail

By | March 1, 2013

      Satellite life extension continues to hold both revolutionary promise and disruptive menace for the satellite and space industry. The useful lifetime of geosynchronous orbit satellites averages about fifteen years – a limit primarily imposed by the exhaustion of propellant aboard. The propellant is needed for “station-keeping,” which means maintaining the satellite in its orbital slot and in-orbit orientation, or attitude, so that its antennae and solar panels are properly pointed. When the propellant is nearly exhausted, the satellite reaches the end of its active life and must be moved to a “graveyard” orbital slot, even though the satellite’s other systems and payload are often in working order.

      The fifteen-year replacement cycle drives the satellite industry; from the capital expenditure cycles of satellite operators, the financing they seek for those expenditures, to the resulting order books of satellite manufacturers and launch service providers. Low Earth Orbit satellites may have even shorter life spans, due to the increased atmospheric drag and friction to which they are subject.

      Since last year, a hardy band of commercial operators have continued to make headway in reaching for this industry grail and rendering it a tangible reality. NASA and the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s (DARPA) “Phoenix” program have joined the private sector players in attempting to develop robotic vehicles to rendezvous and dock with and revive dead or dying satellites.

      Current satellite life extension proposals come in two principal flavors, both involving rendezvous and docking with an in-orbit satellite nearing the end of its planned lifespan by a robot vehicle launched for this purpose. The robotic satellite life extension vehicles will, in some conceptions, remain attached to the satellite and become a new power and booster module, fueled by new consumables ferried into space within the robot life extender. In other conceptions, the robotic vehicle rendezvous and docks with the in-orbit satellite, refuels it and then disengages from the satellite. The advantage of this second type of mission profile is that, while in some views more technically complex, it allows theoretically for a robot life extender to be sent on a mission to several dying satellites, docking with and refueling one after the other, and allowing the cost of the mission to be amortized among the satellites serviced, or even among more than one satellite operator. Nor is refueling a satellite for in-orbit attitude control and station-keeping the only possible satellite life extension technology; other modular components of orbiting satellites could theoretically be replaced – even payload components.

      These technologies will not make satellites immortal; most estimates are that up to five years could be added to the average satellite’s useful life, extending that lifespan by a third. All proposals would require buy-in by prime satellite manufacturers, because serviceable satellites would have to be designed with docking ports, fuel access and other modular components accessible, removable and replaceable by the robot servicer. That, in turn, will probably require pressure by the satellite operators, the manufacturers’ customers. In an already small market of thin margins, in which 20 to 25 large geosynchronous satellites ordered per year is the norm, satellite life extension technology, if successful, would be enormously disruptive to the manufacturers’ existing business model. Of course, that model might change, and not only would the robots servicers themselves have to be manufactured, but longer-lived satellites with modular, replaceable components might lead to new demand and increased orders.

      In any event, satellite life extension is moving from “pie-in-the-sky” territory to reality. McDonald, Dettwiler and Associates, Inc. and Space Systems Loral, which MDA purchased in November; Intelsat General Corporation, in charge of Intelsat’s “hosted payload” initiative; and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory have all been awarded DARPA “Phoenix” contracts, intended to develop technologies and an unmanned spacecraft to harvest components from dead satellites, dispose of the detritus, and revive dying satellites. Another company, Vivisat, a joint venture of U.S. Space and ATK, is developing plans for a “Mission Extension Vehicle,” capable of docking with an in-orbit satellite and serving as a supplemental propulsion system. How close is satellite life extension to reality, and what would be the effects on industry if it came to pass? At SATELLITE 2013, a panel of these companies and agencies will discuss the current state of the industry, and what to expect in the years ahead.

      Owen D. Kurtin is the founding member of New York City-based law firm Kurtin PLLC and a founder and principal of private investment firm The Vinland Group LLC. He may be reached at okurtin@ kurtinlaw.com.