Making Space More Efficient – Orbital Refueling

In these uncertain economic times, millions of Americans are postponing large new purchases as long as they can. After all, why incur the expense of a new car or major appliance when the existing one is still performing well? It doesn’t make economic sense not to get the full lifetime value from expensive products.

In the six months since Intelsat announced that it planned to partner with MDA Corp. to develop a satellite refueling capability, a detailed analysis performed by the two companies shows that this principle works with satellites as well.

Government and commercial operators of satellites historically never obtain the full lifetime value from all of their spacecraft, mainly because frequently the electronics outlast the on-board supply of stationkeeping propellant.  A communications satellite typically carries enough propellant to maintain its position in geostationary orbit for about 15 years. Yet the hardware of the typical satellite is most often still working properly and performing well past the 15-year mark.

Until now there has been no way to refuel a satellite in orbit 22,000 miles above the Earth. So the typical process has been to retire satellites with operable payloads and launch replacement spacecraft. That’s like throwing away a used but well-running car after 15 years simply because it ran out of gas.

Orbital refueling can add 3-5 extra years of service to a typical satellite. This has huge benefits for all the players involved in space communications:

  • Commercial customers – often companies are paying a negotiated rate for satellite services, agreed to 15 years ago. Prices for service on a new satellite with higher power and more advanced electronics would likely be much more expensive, plus a customer may not want to lock itself into another long term contract – especially in this time of corporate economic uncertainty and rapid technical advancement.
  • Government customers – launching new satellites is a hugely expensive endeavor, and the programs often face delays and budget overruns. In today’s budgetary climate, being able to get a few more years out of a satellite by adding fuel makes sense.  Refueling offers risk mitigation for agency missions when faced with factors outside of their control (launch manifest delays, USG budget cuts, delays in manufacturing schedules)
  • Manufacturers and launch companies – orbital refueling does not remove the need for new satellites at all. Instead, it just makes sure every satellite is utilized to the fullest potential possible. This added efficiency may make the difference between the end customers’ plans to stay on a satellite, move permanently to fiber, or even go out of business.  If the satellite owners’ clients go out of business or change to fiber, new satellite contracts will not be needed. Given the choice between selling a satellite every 17 years or not selling any satellites, the manufacturers seem to be faced with an easy choice.

 The spacecraft used to refuel satellites is known as a robotic servicer, and in addition to extending the productive life of satellites it can perform other useful tasks in space:

  • General repairs – Galaxy 15 could have been restored to service much faster with a robotic servicer.
  • Deployment issues – antennas, solar arrays, etc., that do not function properly can be repaired in space.
  • Clear orbital debris – may be an important function in an orbital track that is getting increasingly crowded as satellite constellations continue to grow.

To some, in-orbit robotic servicing still sounds a little too much like futuristic science fiction. However, it’s already been demonstrated successfully in lower orbit on the Orbital Express.  The future is here now.  A robotic servicer capable of orbital refueling and other repair functions will be a huge game changer for the entire space industry.

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