The pioneer maneuver that united two satellites in orbit (and why it matters for the future of space missions)

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Northrop grumman

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The meeting took place at 36,000 km above the Atlantic Ocean.

A commercial satellite from the United States coupled to another in orbit, in a demonstration of what many believe will be a new and flourishing industry.

One of the platforms was a old communications satellite with almost no fuelthe other one auxiliary unit which will now take over all the maneuvering functions of the first.

This will allow the old satellite (Intelsat-901), which has been transmitting TV signals for 19 years, to extend its mission five years.

The event has been described as “a great achievement” by the companies involved.

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Northrop Grumman, responsible for the Extension Vehicle Mission 1 (MEV-1) that was attached to Intelsat-901, said it is the first time that two commercial satellites join in this way at an altitude of more than 36,000 km.

MEV-1 will now push IS-901 to an equatorial position at 27.5 degrees west, so that it can resume telecom tasks at the end of March or beginning of April.

Risk free zone

The satellite industry has been talking about the possibility of doing services in orbit and refueling aged satellites with fuel, and even taking pieces that no longer work out of the sky.

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For years there is talk of the possibility of offering services in orbit, but this is the first time that an agreement gives results.

But the Northrop Grumman / Intelsat agreement is the first commercial initiative to deliver results.

The coupling occurred on Tuesday at 07:15 GMT about 300 km above the geosynchronous arc, from where most telecommunications satellites transmit their data.

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This allowed the MEV-1 to approach IS-901 with the confidence that if something went wrong during the meeting, no nearby operational spacecraft would be compromised.

Grumman’s vehicle will now control all the movements of the two, including the precise movement that the IS-901 must make to map its telecommunications beams in the correct regions of the Earth’s surface.

When Intelsat’s extended mission comes to an end, the MEV-1 will take you to a orbit “cemetery” and then it will go to another satellite that is running out of fuel and that requires this same type of assistance.


Northrop Grumman, which operates this new service through the subsidiary SpaceLogistics LLC, says it is planning expand this service basic offered by MEV-1 to include vehicles capable of doing repairs and assemblies in orbit.

The company is already working on systems that would include not only simple coupling probes, but also robotic arms to trap satellites.

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A team of engineers tested the coupling on Earth using models.

Another option that is being developed is the fuel capsules that can be connected to satellites that have little left.

Tom Wilson, vice president of Space Systems Northrop Grumman and president of SpaceLogistics LLC, said he also believes these services can be of utility for NASA when he sends astronauts away from Earth.

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In its explorations of the Solar System, NASA will need to “carry out all kinds of autonomous robotic missions,” such as “joining vehicles, conducting approach operations, manufacturing parts or components that it did not know it needed,” said Wilson.

“All this technology brings us to these types of vehicles and services,” he added.

The company is expected to launch a second MEV later in the year. Your mission will be to support another Intelsat satellite.

Push the limits

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In 1992, astronauts rescued an Intelsat satellite.

Stephen Spengler, CEO of Intelsat, said his company had long supported the concept of orbiting service, and recalled the mission of the space shuttle in 1992 that rescued the famous Intelsat-603, which had been stranded in the low Earth orbit .

“We push the limits of what is possible and turn those possibilities into reality. That is why we have been fervent defenders of the space service for many years.”

“In economic terms it works for us and makes sense. It allows us to expand revenues and defer capital expenditures until a little later in the future.”

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