A spacecraft performed a life-extending operation on a satellite

For the first time, a spacecraft has docked with a satellite and moved it to extend its lifespan. This could help reduce the growing problem of space debris.

In February this year, the Northrop Grumman’s Mission Extension Vehicle (MEV-1) spacecraft docked with the Intelsat 901 (IS-901) satellite, a privately-owned satellite used for communications which was running low on fuel and would not have been able to maintain its orbit. MEV-1 then took over the navigation of the satellite at the start of April, and has succeeded in raising its orbit by moving it to a new location over a period of six hours. This operated added five years to the lifespan of the satellite.

This is the first time that a satellite has had its life extended in this way without human intervention, and it sets an important precedent for how satellites could be maintained in the future.

MEV-1 captures IS-901
MEV-1 captures IS-901 to initiate the final docking of the two spacecraft. Northrop Grumman

Normally, when a satellite runs out of fuel or otherwise breaks or stops working, it is left in orbit but no longer used. With increasing numbers of satellites being launched, together this creates a problem of space debris. There are thousands of pieces of broken satellite, rocket boosters, and other bits of junk floating around our planet, some of them as small as bullets and some as large as buses. They are often traveling at very high speeds, so when two of these pieces collide, they explode in a shower of tiny pieces which exacerbates the problem.

Experts have coined the concept of “Kessler syndrome,” describing a scenario in which we could put so much junk into orbit around Earth that launching rockets would be difficult or even impossible.

MEV-1 docking
View of IS-901 satellite from Mission Extension Vehicle-1’s (MEV-1) “near hold” position during approach from approximately 20 meters with Earth in the background. The MEV successfully docked with the Intelsat 901 satellite on Tuesday, Feb. 25. Northrop Grumman

Projects like the development of the MEV-1 spacecraft can help alleviate this by servicing satellites that are reaching the end of the lives, allowing them to continue to be used for longer and meaning fewer new satellites need to be launched.

Tom Wilson, vice president of Northrop Grumman Space Systems, described the successful maintenance of the IS-901 satellite as a “historic event” and said in a statement, “Now that MEV-1 has successfully delivered on its mission to place the Intelsat 901 satellite back into operational service, we will continue to pioneer the future of on-orbit servicing through our multi-year technology road map leading to additional services such as inspection, assembly, and repair.”

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