ViviSat, a joint venture between U.S. Space and Orbital ATK, has a radical idea to tackle the growing issue of space junk. The company is attacking the problem at its source by developing the Mission Extender Vehicle (MEV), which will prolong the life of satellites by up to 15 years. Extending the lifespan of a satellite means operators won’t have to send up as many replacements. It also means existing satellites can stay operational longer, reducing the amount of time they will orbit as junk.
The ViViSat MEV can extend the life of existing satellites by providing the auxiliary propulsion and altitude control that is necessary to maintain a satellite’s functionality. The MEV uses an array of proximity sensors to dock with a satellite in geosynchronous orbit, establishing a firm connection between the MEV and its target. Designed for maximum compatibility, the MEV docking system is compatible with 80 percent of all satellites currently in orbit.
Once attached, the MEV can dock and service a satellite according to a client’s needs. When the service is complete, the MEV can undock and move to other satellites, servicing them as needed. Each MEV is designed with enough fuel to operate for up to 15 years while docked with a standard 2,000 kg satellite. ViviSat plans to create a fleet of MEV vehicles to service satellites in orbit. Besides propulsion and altitude control, future functionality may include repair, fuel replenishment, and possibly even retrieval of derelict satellites.
Space junk is a serious and growing issue for space exploration. According to NASA, there are more than a half million pieces of debris in the Earth’s orbit, creating a significant hazard for operational satellites and other spacecraft circling the Earth. Most of this space debris results when satellites and other spacecraft are left in orbit after they have ceased functioning. These satellites slowly fall apart and also collide with each other, producing a copious amount of floating debris.
ViviSat is one of several solutions being proposed to reduce space junk. Other researchers have developed some far-fetched solutions to this problem, including a trash-eating spacecraft and a magnetic net to fish the debris out of space.