Technology Intelsat signs up for Orbital’s satellite life-extension service

Intelsat signs up for Orbital’s satellite life-extension service

David Thompson, president and chief executive officer of Orbital ATK Inc.
David Thompson, president and chief executive officer of Orbital ATK Inc.

Intelsat SA will be the first customer for Orbital ATK Inc’s new service that will use robotic vehicles to fix damaged satellites in space, the companies said on Tuesday.

Orbital ATK plans to launch the first of a planned fleet of five robotic servicing vehicles in 2018, its chief executive, David Thompson, told reporters at a press conference at the Space Symposium in Colorado Springs, Colorado. The satellite repair business is part of a $1 billion investment by Orbital in future space technologies.

Orbital’s service vehicle will serve initially just as a jet backpack, extending the life of a satellite by providing an alternative maneuvering system.

Future satellite servicing vehicles, however, will be able to fix problems, such as unfurling a jammed solar array, refueling satellites and even assembling satellites in orbit, Thompson said.

Intelsat will pay Orbital an undisclosed amount for five years when Orbital’s Mission Extension Vehicle, or MEV, is attached to its working spacecraft, Intelsat Chief Executive Stephen Spengler said at the press conference.

Orbital’s spacecraft will first head to a defunct Intelsat satellite to demonstrate its ability to attach itself. It will then undock, fly to an operational Intelsat spacecraft that is running low on fuel and reattach itself, kicking off a five-year service contract with Intelsat.

Intelsat has not yet identified which of its 49 satellites will host the MEV.

“Having the ability to add five years or more on any particular satellite … provides an enormous amount of fleet flexibility. The economic value of this is to enhance the revenue stream over longer periods,” Spengler said.

Once Intelsat is finished with the MEV, it can move on to service another customer’s satellite, Tom Wilson, president of Orbital’s new Space Logistics, LLC subsidiary, told Reuters.

The servicing satellite is destined to remain operational for 15 to 16 years, Wilson said.

With about 200 commercial communications satellites in orbit, the market for satellite life extensions is “already sizeable and one that will grow considerably over the next decade,” Thompson said.

While Orbital’s new business is aimed initially at commercial satellite operators, the company expects the U.S. government will be interested in its services as well.