Satellite Technology of the Year: Northrop Grumman and the Future of In-Orbit Satellite Servicing

In the same week that Northrop Grumman won the 2020 Satellite Technology of the Year (STOTY) award for its pioneering work with Mission Extension Vehicle-1 (MEV-1), the company successfully docked MEV-2 to the Intelsat 10-02 satellite to deliver life-extension services. However, unlike MEV-1, which docked above the Geostationary Orbit (GEO) before moving IS-901 back into service, MEV-2 docked with IS-10-02 directly in its operational GEO orbital location.

In the space of 14 months, Northrop Grumman has made in-orbit satellite servicing a commercial reality, and not just an exciting concept of the future. It is a well-deserved winner of our STOTY award.

In this interview, Tom Wilson, vice president and general manager for Northrop Grumman and president of SpaceLogistics LLC, and Joe Anderson, senior director of Business Development for Northrop Grumman and vice president of SpaceLogistics, talk about winning this award, look back on the successful February 2020 mission, and share what is next for Northrop Grumman as it looks to bring more cutting-edge services to satellites in orbit.

VIA SATELLITE: Congratulations to Northrop Grumman for winning our Satellite Technology of the Year Award. What does it mean to be recognized for a technology achievement like this?

Wilson: We are thankful and honored to receive this award, it means a lot to us. It hasn’t been an easy path to success by any means. It took us about a decade from the beginnings of this idea to gain acceptance of our peers and our customers and make this vision into a reality. To see it come to fruition with not just one docking, but two dockings, is very exciting. We think the future is very promising in this area. This acknowledgment and the fact that it comes from our industry peers’ votes, makes this achievement very rewarding.

Anderson: This mission will stick with everyone that worked on this as one of the defining moments of their careers. It is certainly one of mine. It is the moment we really enabled Space 2.0. This award recognizes in advance, that history will speak about a time before there was satellite servicing, and a time after there was satellite servicing. This technology and these two docking events will define that transition. It is really an important thing for us to have this recognition.

VIA SATELLITE: Given the technical complexity of in-orbit servicing, did the challenges of the pandemic make your jobs even more difficult, as this was the first time you were proving the technology?

Wilson: The good news is that MEV-1, which we docked with Intelsat 901, was done February last year just before the pandemic took hold and shut everything down. We were able to get the rendezvous and docking before that impacted us. But, on MEV-2, the new working environment with COVID certainly had an impact on our assembly and test campaign. We did have a launch delay for a short time in French Guiana. Our team persevered and got through it, and we were able to culminate with a successful docking.

VIA SATELLITE: How do you now see the market for in-orbit satellite servicing? Now that you have proved the technology, what do you see as the deal flow for NGC going forward?

Anderson: This market is rapidly emerging and evolving. As we forecast, it has been a bit of the “build it, and they will come” type of market. We knew this for two reasons. First, when we were speaking with customers year after year, they would say “This is three to four years out, I can’t tell you what our needs will be. But, if you were there today, I have a need for it.” They would say they couldn’t commit to something three to four years in the future. Because we heard that year after year, we knew for sure it was a need, that was our first indication.

Second, it just makes economic sense to use your assets to their full potential. But because of the risk-averse nature of our industry, it really prevented customers from saying “Yes” to an unproven technology. Now that is changing very rapidly. We have now been successful twice. With MEV-2, we docked to an operational satellite and they never lost service during the docking. We have really overcome that hurdle with the technology.

Our next generation life extension systems, known as Mission Extension Pods, are scheduled to launch in 2024. We will be able to install five of those per year. Our manifest is currently booked into 2026 with many customer opportunities identified beyond, which we are looking to close. We also see governments taking great interest in the possibility of what these technologies can enable, including increased resiliency of existing on-orbit assets. We expect to see deals with government customers going beyond studies and demonstrations, to real servicing missions in the near future.

VIA SATELLITE: How many deals to expect to sign in the rest of this year?

Wilson: We are planning on signing a handful of deals this year. We have also started to do work with the U.S. government in this area.

VIA SATELLITE: What is the revenue potential here? Is it potentially a lucrative market for NGC?

Wilson: From a Northrop Grumman perspective, we have been the sole investor in SpaceLogistics and MEVs over the past seven years with no government funding. If you look to our next generation system, the Mission Robotic Vehicle and the Mission Extension Pods, that is a partnership with DARPA [Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency]. Here again, Northrop Grumman is investing in the next generation technology by contributing the spacecraft, insurance, launch and operations. DARPA is bringing the robotics and some of the advanced software, and we are providing integration. We are making substantial investments as a company, which we would not be doing if we didn’t see the future potential business on the other side of this. If you look at reports from the likes of NSR, there is strong potential for business in this market once this technology has been proven. This market can begin to take off and grow rapidly in the relatively near future. As the market pioneer, we are well poised and prepared for that, and we see a very bright future.

VIA SATELLITE: From a business case how do you see the benefits for customers like Intelsat in using such a service/solution?

Wilson: A company like Intelsat spends a lot of money to put an asset in orbit. About 80 percent of the satellites that are in GEO reach the end of their fuel life, but are still working just fine electronically. MEV allows them to dock and extend that life of that fully depreciating capital asset, and defer the replacement cost of another satellite. It is a deferment of capital spending. Operators can defer those costs by another five years — that provides substantial economic value for them. We can also use it to remove inclination, to bring a satellite that has maybe drifted and bring it back to GEO orbit. We can move the satellite around to a different location to test another market, for example. There are a number of different ways in which this can contribute financially and marketwise to a company like Intelsat.

Anderson: It is really breaking down barriers to entry. It can help existing operators as well as new entrants. For an existing operator, this capability can be used to start new markets. They can open up a new orbital location, where it does not make sense to put a huge investment in a new satellite. They can use an older satellite at a much lower cost to start that market and grow that market, and then they can replace it with a new satellite. But, it also breaks down that barrier to entry for potentially new operators to enter a market, as they can purchase satellites in orbit at a much lower cost, and extend its life to start their business. Our technology enables all of these types of opportunities.

VIA SATELLITE: What is the current status of MEV-2?

Anderson: On April 12, we had a successful docking to the Intelsat 10-02 satellite, which unlike MEV-1, where we docked in the GEO graveyard orbit and then bought it back down into service, the 10-02 satellite was operational in its GEO slot. It was carrying live tracking as we were doing the docking. The great thing is we were able to do that docking and Intelsat did not receive a single outage from any of their customers during. It was a tremendous performance. We were really happy with the outcome for that, and Intelsat is very happy with that. It exceeded our expectations in terms of performance. Now that we are docked, we have taken over the attitude and orbit control of that satellite and we will remained docked to them for the next five years of our contract. After that, the MEV-2 will undock and move on to its next client. Everything is performing just as expected.

VIA SATELLITE: In your remarks accepting the award, you spoke about some exciting plans in terms of how things might develop here. Tell us a bit more about the MRV, and how you expect the tech to progress over the rest of the decade?

Anderson: Our next-generation system, MRV, has as its primary mission installing Mission Extension Pods onto existing satellites that are already in-orbit, but not designed to be serviced. These pods are small propulsion augmentation devices that can extend a typical GEO satellites for about six years. The MRV can also install other augmentation devices that can add resiliency to existing satellites, such as new payloads to those spacecraft, and we estimate that we can install five of these augmentation devices each year. The MRV will be able to use robotics to perform other on-demand missions, such as robotic inspections of satellites that may have been damaged in some ways, or simple repairs such as solar rays or antennas that have failed to deploy. There is a satellite launch every year or two it seems with an anomaly of that sort. Like the MEV, the MRV can also be used to relocate a satellite from one orbit to another. We are also exploring how this robotic vehicle can be used to capture and remove debris from GEO orbit, and how it can service satellites that are more prepared for servicing, such as satellites that have a refueling interface integrated into them or have a power and data port, so new devices can be plugged into them.

We are also working on technologies beyond the MRV, including in-orbit assembly and manufacturing. We are extending work we did with NASA in that area a few years ago. So, that is really the future we see for this all new market. It is enabling quite a robust business and technology roadmap for us for a long time to come.

VIA SATELLITE: How does in-orbit satellite servicing sit in a market that seems to be moving towards Low-Earth Orbit (LEO) and smaller satellites? How will NGC adapt to this new normal?

Wilson: There are multiple billions of dollars of satellites in GEO that are operating today. The government and commercial industry continues to launch and operate satellites in GEO, and we don’t see that changing. We see a diversity in demand for different missions still being there. There is an entrenched market for us for decades to come. In addition, it is not just about communications satellites or LEO versus GEO. We will not only leverage this technology to service commercial GEO technology, but we will also look to see if there is a market in servicing the LEO satellites, and if there is, we can go there.

For the government, we will be there to provide services across a wide range of missions in a wide range of orbits. We are also really looking to the future of this technology, which will introduce also include the on-orbit assembly and manufacturing of satellites, and will lead to a whole new class of missions. But, thinking even beyond that and where exploration is going beyond Earth orbit, we are going to require cargo and other transport logistics and robotic operations away from Earth. This is what this technology will enable. GEO is just the start to enable the marketplace, but our future is very promising across a wide range of orbits and missions.

VIA SATELLITE: Do you expect to see a healthy GEO market in the mega-constellation era?

Anderson: The mega-constellation is the shiny new thing that gets a lot of attention in our industry, but in reality, the marketplace will need all of the above. Just like you see with electronic cars today, it is the shiny new thing and everyone will be driving one, but the reality is there is still a need for the gas-powered pickup trucks. It is similar for the space market. I believe there are applications which are more appropriate for GEO that will keep it healthy for some time to come.

Wilson: Today, the government and commercial industries continue to launch into the GEO market. Our services are going to be needed for decades to come. I don’t see that ecosystem changing for a long time. But, when we get beyond that, there will be opportunities outside of GEO. But, certainly for the next few decades, it is going to be there.

VIA SATELLITE: What do you see as the next big technical evolution in the satellite industry?

Anderson: The next big thing will be in-orbit manufacturing and assembly. This will create a huge advantage to overcome the limitations of launch. Today, spacecraft are built to survive that launch environment and so much of that design of a satellite revolves around that environment, the mass, the structure, the constraints on the size of the spacecraft. In-orbit assembly and manufacturing will totally reshape our thoughts and designs of what future spacecraft will look like. So, I see that as one of the big potential future changes in the industry.

VIA SATELLITE: What do you see as the key challenges for technology companies such as NGC as we head into a new era in which there are hundreds of thousands of satellites in the sky?

Wilson: This new era is very exciting for Northrop Grumman. Our customers across the board, especially our government customers, are looking for us to use our deep mission expertise to address some very challenging missions. In some cases, we are doing that by leveraging our next generation advanced payloads and software technology, and combining that with our mission systems engineering capability but also leveraging some of the production capacity that these hundreds of thousands of satellites are enabling. We are looking at how we can apply this technology to other missions and domains for our customers.

At the same time, we are continuing to mature our technology to the next generation, and we are continuing to stay way out in front when it comes to advanced technologies. For satellite servicing, in addition to the technology side, we are laser-focused on working on the regulatory side of things. We are working to address the challenges of developing open standards in this market, as it is new and emerging. Our real vision here is that every satellite launched after 2025 will be designed and prepared to be serviced in some way. VS

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