Wednesday, February 23, 2022

Next Mission Extension Vehicle to Ride SpaceX to Orbit

In a sort of mixed marriage of New Space and Old Space, Northrup Grumman announced Monday that they had selected SpaceX to carry their next Mission Extension Vehicle to orbit "as soon as Spring of 2024."  Northrop Grumman subsidiary SpaceLogistics describes this satellite as its first Mission Robotic Vehicle (MRV), described as the company’s “next-generation satellite-servicing” spacecraft. 

To fill in a little background, in late February of 2020 - so around the start of "two weeks to flatten the people, er, curve" - Northrup Grumman's first Mission Extension Vehicle (MEV-1) docked to Intelsat 901 (IS-901) in order to provide life-extension services.  It was the first time two commercial satellites had docked in orbit and the first time that mission extension services were offered to a satellite in geosynchronous orbit.  There's a bit more description at either that link or my coverage.  

In April of 2021, MEV-2 docked with another Intelsat satellite, IS-10-02, and saved it as well.  Both Intelsats were more than 10 years old, and were given at least another five years of life.

It's an interesting idea and Intelsat claimed it was a good savings for them.

Jean-Luc Froeliger, vice president of space, space systems engineering and operations for Intelsat, said the cost of servicing is far less than the value of five additional years of satellite service. Waiting five years will also allow Intelsat to replace the 10-02 satellite with a more modern, efficient vehicle. "For us, it's win-win," he said during a teleconference with reporters. "This extension for 10-02 is very valuable to us."

It might not be surprising that a space writer (Eric Ralph at Teslarati) sees things a bit differently. 

While SpaceLogistics’ accomplishments are thus extremely impressive, the general MEV concept and parts of its execution have some flaws. First, the ‘service’ offered appears to be extremely expensive, costing Intelsat – the first and only customer, thus far – at least $13 million per year for the five years MEV-1 will be servicing Intelsat-901. No other MEV contracts have been confirmed, which is not a major surprise. Assuming zero upfront costs for prospective customers, $65 million for an extra five years of operations represents a substantial fraction of the price of some simpler replacement satellites, many of which are now designed to operate for at least 15 years.

Who's right?  The customer, of course.  If they think it's "win-win" and are willing to pay for it, that's what's important.  Intel understand their costs better that Eric Ralph.  Perhaps more importantly, though, in response to the economics and hopefully broaden their market appeal beyond Intelsat, SpaceLogistics has developed an alternative to the Mission Robotic Vehicle that's more economical.  

To complement MRV, Northrop Grumman is also developing Mission Extension Pods (MEPs) – smaller spacecraft designed to still add at least 5-6 years of life to an aging GEO satellite. MRVs – each about 3 tons (~7000 lb) will theoretically be able to carry several MEPs (400 kg/900 lb apiece) into geostationary orbit and install the pods on several different satellites. Additionally, it appears that SpaceLogistics will sell the pods outright, presumably precluding the need for expensive recurring service contracts like those Intelsat signed for MEV life extension.

SpaceLogistics released a CGI-rendered video of the MEPs and the MRV delivering them to a satellite.  Each MRV can potentially carry 12 MEPs.  Northrop Grumman says it’s already sold one MEP – to launch with MRV-1 on that spring of '24 Falcon 9 mission – to Australian telecom provider Optus and has a full manifest for MEPs “through mid-2026.” 

In this Northrup Grumman SpaceLogistics rendering, the MRV is on the left and a satellite to be serviced is on the right.  The MRV appears to have one MEP with solar panels extended and almost completely centered in the rendering, positioned to dock with the customer's satellite.



  1. Excellent. This is just the beginning of cleaning up the orbits. MEPs are cost-effective for big expensive satellites. Not so much for cubesats and such, but that's not the customer base.

    Now send up cleaner-bots to move stuff up to parking orbits for recycling or drop them down for burning up.

    This is the space program I was promised back in the early 70's.


    1. Like the giant robot with a vacuum cleaner from Spaceballs.

      Years ago - 1980s or earlier - I heard a political discussion about all this money spent in space instead of on welfare here on Earth where it should be. The answer was, "it's all spent on Earth and providing jobs. There's not a single 7-11 or any other store up there to spend your money." Kinda stuck with me.

      In the last few years, we've done more to create commerce and to move toward having places to go spend money in space than in all of history. The first tentative steps into commercial space. I still remember the big wheel space station in 2001, run by Hilton and service to the station by Pan Am. OK, those companies won't do it, but private space stations are coming.

      I look forward to it.

  2. An interesting concept.
    These aren't really servicing the satellite, but actually attaching to it to extend their thruster fuel, right?

    1. Right. Nothing on orbit now was designed to be refueled or serviced on orbit. All it can do is grapple the satellite and return it to a useful orbit.

      I think the day when they can be serviced is coming, but still years or a decade away.

    2. NASA did the Orbital Fueling System (ORS) experiment with Shuttle to demonstrate the feasibility:
      They also were designing the Cryogenic Fluid Management Facility (CFMF) at Lewis Research Center to show it could be done safely with cryos, but never got funded to build/fly that.