Satellite Servicing Becomes an Actual Market
Satellite manufacturing might be somewhat in limbo right now as operators look to see how the upcoming mega-constellations change the world of satellite communications. For manufacturers, however, there is no time to rest and wait, as they need to be prepared to satisfy their customers’ ever-growing needs, whatever they might be.
Even as we enter the age of smaller, cheaper, and more agile satellite networks, present and future satellite communications services will continue to rely on well-stocked fleets in orbit. While this has remained fact for some time, commercial satellite operator business models have changed drastically (and often) during the past decade. It is no longer sustainable for operators to throw away depleted spacecraft and build replacements to fill in the gaps. It’s difficult enough operating a satellite at a fixed position in Geostationary Orbit (GEO). Prime real estate spots are limited, prone to physical disturbance and interference, and heavily regulated. The main reason that operators retire dozens of satellites to graveyard orbits every year is because they simply run out of fuel. To state the obvious, the ability to re-fuel in orbit saves an incredible amount of time and money. What’s not so obvious is what operators would do with their re-purposed assets. Are recycled satellites merely gap-fillers, revenue generators, or both?
In one of the biggest satellite manufacturing acquisitions in recent memory, Northrop Grumman bought Orbital ATK last year and inherited its state-of-the-art satellite servicing capabilities. In 2016, Orbital ATK scored a significant endorsement of its servicing technology from one of the largest satellite fleet operators in the world — Intelsat. Just before the Northrop Grumman acquisition, Intelsat Chief Executive Officer (CEO) Stephen Spengler publicly endorsed Orbital’s in-orbit repair and refuelling service during an appearance at SATELLITE 2018, and stated that the operator was contracting Orbital for two Mission Extension Vehicles (MEV-1 and -2) — spacecraft based on the GEOStar satellite bus. The MEV vehicles will attach to a customer’s satellite and extend its life by taking over the orbit and attitude control functions. It is capable of providing life extension services to about 80 percent of GEO satellites currently in orbit.
“Our contract with [now Northrop Grumman] is for a five-year life extension, with the option of two additional years,” says Spengler. “MEV-1 will be providing life extension services for Intelsat 901 which will replace one of our other end of life satellite assets, deferring the need to procure a new satellite. We also have the option to transfer the service to another satellite in our fleet if needed. This flexibility is critical to our overall fleet management plan moving forward.”
MEV will also deliver Intelsat 901 to graveyard orbit once life extension services are complete. MEV-2 will also be providing a five-year life extension to another satellite in Intelsat’s fleet starting in the second half of 2020. North Grumman Innovation Systems Sector Vice President Tom Wilson is excited to be on the cusp of this dynamic market. He says the company remains on track to launch what he says is the market’s first in-space satellite servicing system during the first half of 2019 with the launch of MEV-1. “The MEV-2 is a ‘build to print’ of MEV-1 which allows us to reduce our build schedule to just 26 months or less,” he says. These services are being offered by SpaceLogistics, a wholly-owned subsidiary of Northrop Grumman Innovation Systems. “Introducing our first customer in 2016 (Intelsat) and then following up with another order in 2017 from that same customer signals confidence in the product from one of the world’s leading and most technically demanding commercial satellite services provider,” he adds. “A successful launch and docking in 2019 will further reinforce the fact that we can deliver this game-changing new commercial space capability.”
Speaking at the SATELLITE show, Spengler says he hopes to use future servicing capabilities beyond what Intelsat has already contracted with Northrop Grumman, including the ability to correct satellite deployment anomalies and modify or change the trajectory of satellites that stray from intended orbit. History shows that this capability alone could save millions — even billions — of dollars for operators like Intelsat. Back in 2010, Intelsat lost contact with its GEO satellite Galaxy 15, which was wandering out of its orbit while its transmitters remained fully functional. The anomaly put SES’ AMC 11 satellite at risk of signal interference. The two operators famously worked together to coordinate manoeuvres that prevented service interruption. The takeaway lesson from this incident is that a satellite orbit modification service could provide significant risk-reduction value to operators. Spengler added that Intelsat would also see tremendous value with in-orbit installation of additional payloads or replacements of payloads, as well as avionics computers, sensors, momentum wheels, batteries, and other hardware.
Northrop Grumman isn’t the only company that is experiencing a key year for in-orbit servicing market growth. Another company looking to make a big impact is Effective Space Solutions. Effective Space CEO and Founder Arie Halsband says the company is at a pivotal point as it gets set for its first major launch/service in 2020. Halsband says the company’s plans are to bring satellite servicing to the commercial market “are well under way.” In January 2018, the company announced a customer contract worth more than $100 million with a major regional satellite operator. This will see two of its Space Drone spacecrafts launch in 2020, aiming to significantly extend the life of two of the operator’s communication satellites.
Effective Space has also announced major partnerships with companies such as ArianeGroup, Maxar Technologies, and GMV. It has signed a term sheet with IAI for a financial investment, combined with long term strategic collaboration, according to which IAI will serve as the primary contractor of its Space Drone spacecraft.
Halsband says the company initially developed its Space Drone spacecraft with the aim of decommissioning old satellites to the graveyard orbit. However, very early on, after consulting with satellite operators, the company realized that the main use case would be the life-extension of satellites in orbit. “This required us to come up with an updated design which would allow both station-keeping and attitude-control, and would be capable of maintaining a small rideshare-compatible platform,” says Halsband. “To achieve this, we utilized our unique experience of building low-weight, yet capable, satellites. Today, operators are acknowledging our technical platform design advantages, as well as recognising the financial benefits.”
Halsband says Effective Space is in active discussions with a number of additional prospective customers. In terms of market forecasts, he says, “Alongside this, we are seeing keen interest from a number of well-known operators, and by 2022 we expect to deploy at least four Space Drone spacecraft on an annual basis. With more than 400 commercial communications satellites in orbit in GEO — 25 of which are decommissioned on an annual basis — we would like to address at least half of that market.”
Wilson says Northrop Grumman is optimistic about the future and is just getting started on expanding its offerings to provide a diverse array of in-space services. “Market analysts have estimated the life extension market to be greater than 150 geostationary commercial satellites between 2020 and 2030; we believe the addressable market may be even larger than this,” Wilson says. “Our products directly answer that need to service fully functional but ageing satellites in both commercial and government markets.”
Northrop Grumman sees a strong business case to service fully functional but ageing satellites across both commercial and government markets. “Our commercial GEOCom customers are going through a transition in their market at this time. It is a time of great uncertainty for many operators due to changing technology and new competitive entrants in the market,” Wilson says. “These market changes are causing great revenue pressures on our customers with their transponder prices on a decline. Because of this, many operators are uncertain of their 15 year business models causing hesitation in purchasing replacement satellites. Given the evident delays in deployment of the Low Earth Orbit (LEO)/Middle Earth Orbit (MEO) constellations combined with the current lack of satellite replacements, we believe that this could lead to a large undersupply of capacity at some point in the next several years.”
The Defense Advanced Researched Projects Agency (DARPA) brings a slightly different perspective to this market. As a government entity, DARPA advances technology developments, but does not bring products or services directly to market. Joe Parrish, the program manager for DARPA’s Robotic Servicing of Geosynchronous Satellites program says the real turning point for on-orbit servicing has come from the demand side in the past two-to-three years, with both the Department of Defense (DOD) and commercial satellite communities now willing to embrace in-space servicing to increase resiliency; resolve orbit delivery and deployment anomalies; extend the life of valuable assets; and enable new capabilities for older systems. “The deployment of operational satellite servicers such as DARPA RSGS, NASA, RESTORE-L, and a variety of commercial systems in the next one-to-five years, is going to make for a dramatic change in the landscape of on-orbit satellite operations,” he says.
DARPA’s Robotic Servicing of Geosynchronous Satellites (RSGS) is being designed to service a wide variety of spacecraft in geostationary orbit (GEO). Parrish says DARPA is outfitting RSGS with the means (e.g., rendezvous sensors, grappling tools) to service approximately 90 percent of the spacecraft currently in GEO. Over the several-year lifetime of RSGS, DARPA imagines servicing up to 30 clients in GEO, undertaking a variety of operations including inspection, anomaly resolution, package installation, and repositioning in the GEO belt.
DARPA has several efforts focused on making U.S. space assets more resilient. RSGS and on-orbit servicing generally are complementary to those efforts, according to Parrish. In 2017, DARPA initiated its Consortium for Execution of Rendezvous and Servicing Operations (CONFERS) program, which envisions a permanent, self-sustaining, and independent forum where industry can collaborate and engage with the U.S. government in research about on-orbit servicing, as well as drive the creation of standards that servicing providers and clients would adopt. DARPA also has its Blackjack program that aims to provide the DOD with highly connected, resilient, and persistent coverage from a network in LEO.
In terms of how the market will develop Parrish makes the comparison that it will be similar to going from a mainframe to a desktop computer. “Once you go from mainframe to desktop computer, you never go back,” he says, “And that’s what I think is likely to happen once in-space servicing and assembly move out of the realm of technology development/demonstration and move into the realm of true operational practice. Developers of new communication satellites and new astronomy missions will be freed from the constraints of monolithic, unserviceable spacecraft and will be able to fully exploit the benefits of in-space operations like servicing and assembly to create much more capable communications platforms and science observatories. And humankind will benefit from that.”
While there is a lot of talk about servicing satellite in GEO, some are curious as to what satellite servicing capabilities will bring to the new spacecraft intended for LEO. Parrish says, “The advent of LEO/MEO constellations does not eliminate the utility of on-orbit servicing. While it’s likely that most of these constellation spacecraft will not require refueling, there still will be numerous other applications for inspection, payload installation, and orbital cleanup for spacecraft that become unable to maneuver by themselves.
Wilson says GEO operators are currently facing significant market uncertainty resulting from changing payload technologies and threats from LEO/MEO constellations. “This uncertainty is actually creating a greater opportunity for us as life extension provides a means for the GEO operators to defer some fleet replacement decision-making, allowing for the market and technology uncertainties to mature,” he adds.
Halsband admits that the LEO market has accelerated much faster than initially anticipated. As a result, Effective Space made the decision to proactively invest in supporting servicing missions in LEO, and adapt its platform to serve as backup for failures for spare capacity, moving satellites from one orbit to another and to optimize fleet operation and reduce risk. “In LEO, the main use case will be active-debris-removal and post-mission disposal. As LEO mega-constellations’ satellites inherently have a certain failure rate, satellite servicing can support healthy and sustainable operations in the different orbit planes, while ensuring regulatory and liability compliance,” he says. “We are actively collaborating with leading LEO players to study and establish such use cases. The fact that leading GEO operators are now looking into hybrid usage of orbits (MEO and LEO) further enables us to come up with a unified offering of servicing capabilities, utilising the same technologies, which can address both different mission profiles and different orbits.”
It is clear that we are moving away from a period that could very easily be classed as ‘science fiction’ and the market becomes real. Many involved at the cutting edge say the main challenges are no longer technical ones. Wilson admits one of the key challenges is overcoming a conservative mindset from customers that creates a ‘Wait, prove it to me first’ attitude. He also talks about the challenge of creating new business models. “Overcoming the satellite manufacturer’s business model investment paradigm to invest into a service business with a longer payback period. As an aerospace and defense contractor, SpaceLogistics’ parent company does not traditionally invest in developing new service industries like satellite servicing,” he adds.
Parrish says the challenges in this market are no longer technical ones. He says there has always been a chicken-and-egg problem where satellites are not considered serviceable because there are no servicers available, and no one wants to build servicers because it is perceived that the existing satellites are unserviceable. “RSGS, RESTORE-L, and the other servicers are about to break some eggs by providing highly-capable servicing capabilities to the existing satellite ecosystem,” he says. “Finally, there has been an economic limitation when a servicer was only able to service a single client spacecraft and the servicer was roughly price-equivalent to the client. In that case, it makes more sense to simply fly a replacement client spacecraft. This newer class of servicers breaks that paradigm by either being much lower in cost, in the case of the single-client systems — or is able to service many clients, in the case of the more complex systems like RSGS.”
Halsband talks of proving the business case for satellite servicing will also be essential to the company’s success. He adds, “Satellite servicing fills a major gap in the market which is not currently being addressed. As well as the significant cost efficiency advantages outlined earlier — lowering both satellite construction and deployment costs — and improving lifespan, resilience and reliability, satellite servicing has the potential to dramatically reduce the amount of space ‘junk.’ With space debris positing a threat to satellites in LEO, being able to both remove this junk, and minimize the impact by reducing the number of decommissioned satellites, presents huge opportunities.” VS
-Jeffrey Hill contributed to this story.