Article on Servicing and Refueling Satellites Is a Bit Misleading

An article titled “Servicing + Refueling Satellites in Orbit” in the June issue of SatMagazine contained a lot of good information on the topic, but also presented a couple of points which I feel are a bit misleading.

First of all, regarding what the author called the “most overriding argument against an orbital repair shop,” he stated that “satellite technology developed ten years ago is now totally out of date and unusable.” Well, as a matter of fact, commercial GEO operators are bringing in hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue annually by providing communications using satellites that have been in orbit more than 10 years – they certainly seem very “usable” to me and to the rest of us here at Intelsat.

Suppose we gave our customers a choice: they could continue to receive several years of additional service from a life-extended heritage spacecraft at their current price, or they could make a long-term commitment to purchase services from a new satellite at a higher price. Might they not choose to stay where they are a little longer?

Orbital slots are valuable real estate, yet satellites continue to be operated in these slots well past their design lifetimes of around 15 years or so.  If the older technology were unusable, a business plan for continued operation would be difficult to justify. Commercial operators instead would have replaced the spacecraft.  These older spacecraft are not only quite usable, but they are even operated in inclined orbits after the propellant remaining is insufficient for continuation of north/south station keeping.

Another justification for in-orbit servicing is that it might be needed for a brand new satellite. For example, an improperly launched satellite might benefit from a tow to GEO orbit or a refill of the on-board propellants to replace what was used to get to the GEO arc. A new satellite with a stuck solar array or antenna – as Intelsat’s New Dawn satellite experienced in 2011 — could also benefit from an assisted deployment. Insurance companies certainly would appreciate that service offering.

A company with a satellite inadvertently running out of fuel in GEO or suffering system failure might pay handsomely for a service that could tow their defunct spacecraft into graveyard orbit. In fact, the liability associated with NOT REMOVING the “orbital debris” could be substantial and would be an incentive to properly dispose of the dead spacecraft.

The second misleading point about the article regards Intelsat’s contract with MDA to provide refueling services. Intelsat contracted with MDA for the delivery of 1000kg of propellant to our heritage spacecraft fleet of over 50 satellites.  The author writes that “this project was canceled in January of 2012 as there was a lack of interest from Intelsat.” That is completely incorrect. Intelsat continues to be the most vocal advocate of in-orbit servicing among commercial operators. Intelsat did NOT cancel the project with MDA. Rather, MDA made the decision to invest its resources elsewhere only after other commercial operators AND the U.S. government didn’t step up to take advantage of these service offerings. At the time of MDA’s decision, both NASA Goddard and DARPA TTO were also pursuing robotic servicing programs for GEO satellites. Certainly both the commercial world and the U.S. government are very interested in developing this technology.

The author’s closing comment that the redeeming value of developing robotic servicing is that “knowledge gained from these efforts will be essential in case lunar bases are established.”  Hmmm — I think we will not have to wait that long.