A Meeting in Orbit Demonstrates a Space Junk Solution

For the first time, one commercial satellite has grabbed hold of another one in orbit around Earth, demonstrating a technology that could help reduce the proliferation of space debris around our planet by enabling the repair and refueling of dying spacecraft.

“This is the first time in history a docking has been performed with a satellite that was not pre-designed with docking in mind,” Joe Anderson, a vice president at SpaceLogistics, a subsidiary of Northrop Grumman, said during a telephone news conference on Wednesday.

The company built the robotic Mission Extension Vehicle-1, or MEV-1, which was launched in October on top of a Russian Proton rocket. Over the past few months, it has made its way to more than 22,000 miles above Earth’s surface, just above what is known as geosynchronous orbit. Its target was Intelsat 901, an 18-year-old communications satellite that is working fine but running low on fuel.

Intelsat removed the communications satellite from service in December and raised it to the same altitude as MEV-1 for this demonstration. Sky watchers like Jonathan McDowell, an astrophysicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, noted that MEV-1 approached within a few miles of the Intelsat satellite about a week ago.

MEV-1 docked with Intelsat 901 on Tuesday at 2:15 a.m. Eastern time, Northrop Grumman announced. MEV-1 will remain connected, providing propulsion for the Intelsat with its electric thrusters. After tests of its systems, MEV-1 will push the Intelsat satellite to a new operational orbit in late March or early April.

Without MEV-1, Intelsat 901 would need to be retired within months. Under the contract, MEV-1 is to extend the lifetime of Intelsat 901 by five years. MEV-1 will then push it to a higher orbit known as the graveyard, where it will be decommissioned and not in danger of colliding with other satellites. Designed to last 15 years, MEV-1 will then undock and can be sent to help another satellite.

The two companies declined to talk about pricing, but Stephen Spengler, the chief executive of Intelsat, said, “The economics work for us.”

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