What goes up must come down, and satellites are no exception. Earth’s gravity is constantly pulling satellites closer to their fiery deaths. Many satellites have fuel and propulsion onboard to extend their life, but that only goes so far. Northrop Grumman Corporation and SpaceLogistics LLC have a solution meant to extend the life of satellites in decaying orbits. On April 12, 2021, they announced the successful docking of their new satellite servicing spacecraft, the Mission Extension Vehicle 2 (MEV-2), with Intelsat 10-02, a commercial communications satellite. This follows on the heels of their earlier success with MEV-1 in February 2020.
Northrop Grumman’s new satellites created an industry where there was a void. They are the only provider of satellite saving technology and are leagues ahead of anyone else looking to venture into this new field. Even more fascinating, MEV-2 and its predecessor MEV-1 will carry out a five-year contract on their current satellites before detaching and starting a new contract with a different satellite. They can work with numerous satellites through the course of their lives.
Northrop Grumman is looking further into the future with their plan to provide maintenance services to orbiting satellites. In 2024, they intend to launch Mission Extension Pods (MEPs) to both commercial and government satellites. Like a visiting service station, the MEPs will attach to the satellites using the Mission Robotic Vehicle (MRV) and perform life extension services. They haven’t described these services in detail, but the MRV can inspect and repair satellites that need maintenance. There has also been discussion around using the robotic arm of the MRV to remove space junk near satellites.
The MRV and its robotic arm has another purpose: assembling and deploying spacecraft in space. It’s only a matter of time before production and assembly happens off-Earth. The environmental impact and cost (mostly cost since the environment is an afterthought to commercial interests) are significant barriers to space exploration. By 2030, Northrop Grumman plans to assemble and manufacture technology in-orbit. While other companies focus on near-term projects that lean heavily on existing technology and processes, Northrop Grumman appears to be investing in the inevitable future of space exploration.
We all benefit from reducing the harmful side effects of vehicle launches from Earth. Last year saw 114 space launches and with greater interest in satellites that number will only grow. It’s often noted that rocket launches are a small drop in the bucket compared to other industries like aviation, but there are few studies to pull from and not enough interest in doing more to track and investigate the local and global impacts. These concerns combined with the looming threat of space junk, means industries need to lead the way on creating a comprehensive plan to move manufacturing to space and clean up the near-space environment.