New space-running in-orbit service. From satellite repairs to the use of space resources

As the satellite population tends to increase, orbital services or On-orbit servicing (OOS) is preparing to unveil new perspectives and become a structural factor in the new space race. From refueling to repair, including assembly in orbit, the OOS will soon allow the emergence of a modular space capable of continuously adjusting its architecture. Anyone who claims to be a space power must pay close attention to this new dynamic, many of which are driven by military domains.

On February 25, 2020, Northrop Grumman’s Mission Extended Vehicle 1 (MEV-1) space tug first docked with the Intelsat 901 telecommunications satellite, then orbited a cemetery near Geostationary Ark. Orbital from 2001 and out of fuel from December 2019, it will operate for another five years. Despite experimental precedents, the strategy has commercially launched life-enhancing orbit services, while publicly demonstrating its technical potential. On 12 April, a second MEV docked with another Intelsat (10-02) for a similar strategy, while on 21 March Astroscale’s ELSA-D mission, aimed at developing, maintaining, and departing reconnaissance techniques, departed from Diorbit, Baikonur.

Projects to orbit vehicles, refueling, maintaining, assembling, inspecting, repairing or deburring satellites and debris are multiplying. About fifty of them now, more than half of them in the United States. According to a survey published in February 2021 by consulting firm North Sky Research (NSR), of all the possibilities offered by the in-orbit service, the field of life extension proposed by MEV will represent 51% of the future-orbital service market. Geostationary orbits will focus 17% of activity with a market of 2 3.2 billion by 2030, with non-geostationary orbits capturing the remaining 83% with 230 potential customer satellites (1) In terms of the cost of sending a service vehicle into orbit, consider today that it targets high-value-added satellites (GNSS, government, military, scientific satellites, etc.).

The source of the in-orbit service includes strategies for mating and proximity operations, which can be defined as a deliberate strategy aimed at physically bringing an artificial satellite closer to another object in orbit, to conduct operations there or in between. Docking of Soyuz in ISS is one such classic operation. However, advances in automation, guidance or navigation are opening up new perspectives. While the interest may be commercial or scientific, it also has a military dimension to anti-satellite operations.

Top countries in space pollution

Strong economic and strategic prospects: for what purpose in-orbit service?
Inspection, installation and repair

Since 1959, satellite operators and insurers have reported 200 inconsistencies that are responsible for incorrectly installed solar panels or antennas. These errors, which reduced the efficiency of the satellite, cost insurers more than 4.4 billion (2) In 2018, the Viasat-2 telecommunications satellite, originally designed to transmit 350 Gbps, had its capacity limited to 260 Gbps after partial installation of its antennas. Here again, the insurance covers the operator financially up to 21 215 million (3) But, in the end, a visitor equipped with a clear arm can solve this problem by installing vehicle antennas and blocked solar panels. In the long run, we can even imagine defective material replacement in orbit.

AndPlanned presentation of Northrop Grumman’s Mission Extended Vehicle 1 (MEV-1)

Life Extensions: Refueling and Towing

Intelsat stated in 2020 that each of its telecommunications satellites earned an average of $ 40 million per year (4) While we know that the cost of such satellites is about 300 300 million per unit and the military version of the US Air Force, like an advanced EHF, costs more than 3 1.3 billion.5), Takes the full meaning of refueling. Due to the lack of fuel for station maintenance, telecommunications satellites were sent into orbit of a cemetery after 15 years of operation, despite the nominal operation of other components. However, it has been noted that most of the inconsistencies reported by operators usually occur in the first year of operation or at the stage of orbit placement. According to the Seradata-Spacetrack database, 5% of satellites in geostationary orbit experience a major inconsistency in the first year of their operation (6) We have read less than 1% for the following years. Although Northrop Grumman’s MEV does not offer refueling in this way, it docks the client satellite and provides propulsion support for an additional five years. At the same time, the MEV customer may decide to move his satellite to another location and thus adjust the architecture of his star according to the needs of his users.

Breakdown of in-orbit service projects

Deorbiting debris and satellites

There are now 24,000 pieces larger than ten centimeters in space and 300,000 debris between zero and ten centimeters. The proliferation of active satellites in orbit makes these risk aversion strategies more frequent and more numerous (1,300 in 2017 for 3,000 in 2021).7) Although there are rules for deorbiting, it is still the case that they are not respected, voluntarily or not. The European Space Agency’s Envisat observation satellite, launched in 2002 and with which it lost contact on April 8, 2012, is today the largest passive satellite in orbit around the Earth. It now represents a threat to other constellations due to its orbit at 800 kilometers. Such debris can trigger Kessler syndrome (8) And an orbital plane can be almost unusable. But is there any market today for the removal of debris? According to the NSR survey, this will represent 7% of global revenue from services by 2030. To meet this demand, the British Astroscale launched its ELSA-D mission on Sunday 21 March, with the aim of demonstrating the potential for debris. Assembly and deorbiting. For Mark Emerton, the robotics research manager at UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), the equivalent of CNRS, ” Becoming a leader in in-orbit servicing, in-orbit manufacturing serves as a stepping stone to dominance. (9This approach leads to questioning the medium and long-term strategic interests of orbital services and the importance of measuring this perspective.

Accumulation and exploitation of space resources

Gaining expertise in service missions in Earth’s orbit today means ensuring the ability to project yourself into medium and long-term Cisluna missions. Since the in-orbit service falls within the domain of robotics in a limited environment, all that is done in orbit can be done directly on the lunar surface, with the aim of harnessing its resources and ultimately producing. Located in normal placeOxygen / Hydrogen (LOX / LH2) or Oxygen / Methane (LOX / CH4) propellants are required to reach Mars from the Moon. The challenges to achieving this are still immense. Before you can make it Located in normal place, In-Orbit Refueling Station Depot seems to be a convenient solution. Once the terrestrial takeoff is complete, the launcher can provide fuel in low orbits to advance toward the moon. This is where American start-up Orbit Fab works. To stimulate his research, the American National Science Foundation (NSF) awarded him a 250,000 grant in 2020 (10) For its part, the US Air Force has chosen to develop a universal connector for the purpose of transferring fluids into orbit. And as proof of its dynamism, Orbit Fab was preparing in June to put its first tank into orbit.

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