Fixing, refueling, and upgrading satellites in orbit is about to become more common. A group is pushing for international standards to keep these missions safe.
THE COMMUNICATIONS SATELLITE Intelsat 901 had lived a useful life, having beamed signals back and forth from Earth since 2001. But by late 2019, it was starting to run out of fuel. Without an intervention, it would have to go live in a “graveyard orbit”—a region away from operational instruments. There, beyond the population of more lively satellites, Intelsat 901 would ellipse impotently around Earth, along with other satellites that were perhaps totally functional but running on empty.
But luckily for this Intelsat, an intervention was on the horizon. It was to become the target for the first “Mission Extension Vehicle” (MEV), a symbiotic spacecraft made by a company called SpaceLogistics. The MEV is designed to fly up to a dead satellite, attach itself, and use its own propulsion system to place and then keep a spacecraft in a normal orbit. Voilà: resurrection. Or so the idea went. No private company, including SpaceLogistics, had actually done such a thing before.
The MEV got its shot at Intelsat 901 in February 2020. From a control room, Joe Anderson—a vice president at SpaceLogistics—watched the two satellites get ready to dock, feeling a touch of nostalgia. He’d worked at Intelsat as a much younger man, when 901 left Earth. He hadn’t seen the satellite in nearly 20 years. But there, suddenly, it was, materializing before MEV-1’s camera like a ghost. He watched as the MEV stuck a probe into the older spacecraft’s engine, hooked on, and pulled it into what would be a five-year-long embrace. For the next half-decade, the MEV will use its propulsion system to keep the satellite operational in the right orbit. “I haven’t stopped smiling since February 25,” says Anderson. Which is quite a thing to say in 2020. With that success, SpaceLogistics queued up its second MEV mission, which launched in August and will link up with another Intelsat early next year.
MEV-1’s helping robot hand, and chimeric hold, represented the world’s first commercial satellite-servicing mission. Some experts see satellite servicing as an important and soon-to-be-burgeoning industry, one that will remake how humans do space. “Right now, everything is very ‘Build it, launch it, don’t touch it, throw it away,” says John Lymer, chief architect of robotics and automation at Maxar, a company that, among other things, builds satellites and robotic instruments and does Earth observation. (Lymer notes that guidelines do exist for “throwing away” satellites in a timely and responsible manner.) But once servicers have entered the chat, companies will instead be able to move spacecraft around, give them new life, inspect them, refuel them, or upgrade them. Satellites will be able to change and grow and get accessories, instead of just obsolescing.
But those pros have a flip side. A competitor or spacefaring government could technically move a satellite without permission, spy on something they have no business seeing, or add an accessory that blocks a key camera. That’s why transparency—like saying what you’re going to do, doing it, and then saying what you did—is so important, according to Brian Weeden, of the space-sustainability think tank Secure World Foundation. SpaceLogistics set a good example, publicizing its MEV-1 plans ahead of time, for instance. “There were hosts of observers,” Weeden says, both governmental watchers and hobbyists. Then, the company published pictures of the mission. “All of that was not a given,” he says. “Space companies tend to be very reluctant in some ways to show photos of real satellites.”
Weeden leads a nonprofit group called Confers, in which Lymer and Anderson are participants. Confers—the Consortium for Execution of Rendezvous and Servicing Operations—aims to establish standards for how these un-socially-distanced servicing satellites (and any private satellites meant to maneuver close together) should behave. The group’s members are companies with some stake in the industry, from anywhere in the world, who are interested in collaborating on how to be on their best behavior.
Recently, the group developed a set of baseline best practices that the International Organization for Standardization is currently considering. That’s the organization that set film speeds for cameras and laid out how files should be burned to CD. Last year, the organization began working on what it’s calling Space systems—Rendezvous and Proximity Operations (RPO) and On Orbit Servicing (OOS)—Programmatic Principles and Practices, based on the foundations Confers developed at meetings like the one it held (virtually) in October. For servicing satellites, the goal is to get the gameplay in place before the game really gets started. “We’re hoping to see something emerge next year,” says Weeden.
CONFERS—AND THE GROUP’S proposed standards—doesn’t exist because companies like SpaceLogistics pushed for them. That push came from Darpa, the Defense Department’s R&D arm. The agency provided initial funding for Confers in 2017 and helped herd the private-sector players together. “Given that the servicing industry was very new, they felt that it was worth putting some government funding into a consortium to bring the emerging companies together,” says Weeden.
The “they” in that sentence includes Todd Master, program manager at Darpa. “I’d like to say it’s an unusual Darpa undertaking,” Master says. “But everything is unusual.”
The idea came up because the agency was running a program called Robotic Servicing of Geosynchronous Satellites, or RSGS, which would throw money at a company to help whip up a spacecraft that could “make house calls in space.” The program entailed a public-private partnership, in which the makers of the spacecraft, packed with servicing tools from Darpa, will continue to own and operate it. The satellite’s robot arms will do demo work to show that dexterous servicing and inspection are possible, and then SpaceLogistics—which ultimately got the contract—will keep using the craft after the mission is over. “These types of operations for commercial entities absent government supervision are very new, with high stakes in the event of a mishap,” says Master. Which presented a problem: What if Darpa paid for spacecraft like this, and then its operators went rogue? After all, no one really regulates the coziness that goes on between satellites. If there were no rules, what would “mishap,” or misbehavior, even mean? Plus, when something goes wrong in space, the responsibility falls on the bad actor’s home country, which makes misbehavior a national security concern. Darpa wanted to get out in front of all that.
So Darpa officials spooled up Confers to lay out what “safe” might mean and what “responsible” might look like, to help incubate a healthy industry and to determine which companies were even working in this space. “This is a nascent industry,” says Master. “At the time we set this up, nobody had anything on orbit yet.”
Master recalls that this idea wasn’t exactly met with enthusiasm in the proximal space industry. “Initially, everybody was a little bit reticent,” he says. The companies were worried about revealing trade secrets, doubted that competitors would cooperate, and were squirmy about the need for standards at all. Couldn’t they just abide by a space-based no-asshole rule?
Eventually, though, they came aboard, and the group—which just finished its third year—is up to 41 member companies. Their biggest accomplishment so far has been coming up with that draft guidance—the set of proposed principles—and submitting it to the International Organization for Standardization. The recommendations start with high-level ways to make sure other companies (and countries) don’t think an innocent servicing satellite is about to do something sneaky, or send solar-panel-shredding debris everywhere. Weeden says the group wants commercial satellites to act in ways that “clearly distinguish themselves from potential military activities.” That’s easy: Satellite operators should release information about where the satellite is and where it’s going. Companies should inform the owners of a satellite that they’re approaching and that they’ll be there for dinner at 6. They should inform relevant governments—and even the general public—about what they’re doing, how it went, and what new orbits each satellite ended up in. To talk to the public, they can just, for instance, Tweet it out, or put a news release on their website.
It’s about consent, basically, and openness. That’s good in all intimate relationships, but especially ones that happen at 6,900 miles per hour. “We want vehicles coming together for good reasons,” says Lymer. “We want people’s plans, people’s intentions, to be transparent.”
LYMER’S COMPANY, MAXAR, is working on a NASA mission called OSAM-1, a demo dexterous satellite which is set to launch in 2024. Once in orbit, it’ll sidle up to an old Earth-observation satellite, Landsat 7, and give it some juice. Then it’ll go off and build an antenna made of seven separate panels, using robot arms, and then it’ll construct a 10- to 20-meter long carbon-fiber-reinforced plastic beam. But these aren’t new accoutrements for Landsat 7. They’re a hodgepodge set of tasks meant to show that servicing, assembly, and manufacturing are all possible in space (and not just in the Rust Belt). “Demos are important so that people can see that the technology actually exists,” says Lymer.
In those demos, OSAM-1 will have to do more than just walk its talk. The standards outlined by Confers also suggest that operators not generate any debris while they’re working, like lost bolts, high-velocity paint chips, or shattered panels that could fly off and hit something else. Because accidents happen, the group recommends that satellite operators carry insurance. It might also be good, the draft document suggests, to establish no-trespassing zones—distances that operators must keep from bystander satellites, not involved in the servicing, to make sure no one thinks they’re being mischievous or might accidentally cause harm.
That’s not always how military and intelligence ops have gone down. For example, late last year, one Russian satellite spat out a smaller satellite. Both then propelled themselves close to one of the National Reconnaissance Office’s assets—likely one that’s the rough equivalent of a Hubble telescope pointed at Earth. In July, then near another Russian satellite, the smaller spacecraft shot out a projectile, which some experts interpreted as an anti-satellite weapon. “The Russian satellite system used to conduct this on-orbit weapons test is the same satellite system that we raised concerns about earlier this year, when Russia maneuvered near a US government satellite,” John “Jay” Raymond, commander of US Space Command and US Space Force chief of space operations, said in a statement at the time. “This is further evidence of Russia’s continuing efforts to develop and test space-based systems, and consistent with the Kremlin’s published military doctrine to employ weapons that hold US and allied space assets at risk.”
The US plays its own games: As far back as 1990, its stealth Prowler satellites—launched from space shuttle Atlantis—crept around Russian spacecraft. “To my knowledge, there are not established standards for national security activities such as close approaches for surveillance or inspection,” says Weeden. “Within a country, they likely have a checklist or procedure they follow, but many of these activities are classified or sensitive, so there’s very little public or multilateral discussion.” His day job employer, Secure World, has called for governments to chat about what counts as aggressive-creepy. “There are agreements on the high seas about how militaries interact with each other, precisely to reduce tensions and the chances of mistakes and misperceptions,” says Weeden. “We have called for a similar thing to happen for space.”
For now, though, there is just a US defense agency helping encourage companies not to behave like governmental agencies sometimes do. And while Confers awaits the official international verdicts, its members are working on grittier standards, like specs they hope satellite makers will adopt for standard communications, standard interfaces, standard power. They want to do what the computing industry has, to make sure that an HDMI port is always an HDMI port, and a USB port is always a USB port.
That’s good for a company like SpaceLogistics. Anderson foresees a world where every satellite is born ready to hook up with a servicing satellite—designed from the get-go with things like refueling valves. The company has already started working on its second-generation servicer, with Darpa’s RSGS program. After that, SpaceLogistics will put its own “mission extension pods,” each about the size of a beer fridge, aboard the same basic spacecraft. One craft can install up to six such fridges in a year, attaching one each to six languishing satellites to propel them toward productivity.
But questions remain about how many satellites might have owners that desire resurrection, upgrade, or repair. “It’s a new market, so there’s a lot of enthusiasm,” says Weeden. “But also a lot of things that are unproven. On that list of unprovens is the market itself: How much business is there actually going to be?” That, though, is just another problem for the future.
Source: Wired Magazine