In a historic first, one private satellite docks to another in orbit

On Tuesday, a spacecraft that was launched four months earlier docked with a communications satellite about 36,000km above the Earth. Northrop Grumman reported the historic docking on Wednesday, and the company heralded the mission as an “historic accomplishment” in the field of satellite servicing. Prior to this mission, no two commercial spacecraft had ever docked in orbit before.

Launched on a Proton rocket in October, the Mission Extension Vehicle-1 (MEV-1) has a fairly long history of development under various companies. Ultimately, it was brought to space by SpaceLogistics, a wholly owned subsidiary of Northrop Grumman. After the company’s rideshare launch in October, its MEV-1 spacecraft used electric-propulsion thrusters to raise its orbit 290km above geosynchronous orbit.

Meanwhile, a communications satellite launched in 2001 (Intelsat-901) was pulled from active service in December 2019 as it ran low on fuel. Operators commanded the satellite to move into a “graveyard orbit” above geostationary space. It is here that MEV-1 linked up with the communications satellite on Tuesday.

According to Northrop Grumman, the combined spacecraft stack will now perform on-orbit checkouts before MEV-1 starts to relocate the combined vehicle back into geostationary orbit, where Intelsat 901 will continue in service for five additional years.

“Pushing the boundaries of what’s possible is in our DNA here—that’s why we didn’t hesitate to sign up to be MEV-1’s first customer,” said Mike DeMarco, executive vice president and chief services officer at Intelsat. “We’re proud to make history with SpaceLogistics LLC and Northrop Grumman on this groundbreaking space milestone.”

MEV-1 Mission Profile.

Northrop says its MEV-1 spacecraft uses a mechanical docking system that attaches to existing features on a satellite, and it is designed for multiple docking and undockings and can deliver over 15 years of life extension services. The company plans to launch its second Mission Extension Vehicle, MEV-2, later this year. Northrop also said this is its first step toward establishing a fleet of satellite servicing vehicles that not only extend the life of satellites but provide inclination changes and spacecraft inspections and perform in-orbit repair and assembly.

As Earth orbit becomes more congested, a number of companies are working to develop technologies to both service vehicles as well as remove orbital debris from space. Tuesday’s successful docking seems to be a positive step forward into a future in which on-orbit spaceflight becomes more sustainable, where spacecraft connect, assemble, and operate in a more coordinated way.

Listing image by Northrop Grumman


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