A robotic spacecraft has just locked an active satellite into orbit


A robotic spacecraft from Northrop Grumman clung to an old communications satellite in deep orbit and extended its lifespan by another five years. The Mission Extension Vehicle-2 (MEV-2) marked Northrop’s second successful docking of an object in space. The mission is part of the company’s efforts to launch an industry of life extension services for dead, dying or wandering satellites.

MEV-2 was launched last August from French Guiana in South America. It spent six months elevating its orbit to meet with Intelsat’s 17-year-old communications satellite in geosynchronous orbit more than 35,000 miles from Earth. That satellite was running out of fuel and was getting old; it had operated much longer than its expected life, while still providing broadband communications across three continents.

On March 12, the MEV-2 vessel started a month-long docking process with the Intelsat satellite. Docking was completed at 1:34 p.m. ET today and confirmed by Northrop Grumman. It “was as exciting and successful as the construction of MEV-1,” said Joe Anderson, vice president of business development at SpaceLogistics, the Northrop subsidiary that launches MEVs, at a news conference Monday. Now, Intelsat’s IS-10-02 satellite can continue to beam broadband communications to South America, Europe, Africa and the Middle East.

An artistic representation of a Mission Extension Pod connected to a customer satellite.
Northrop Grumman

MEV-1 was Northrop’s first docking success last year, a breakthrough in its goal of brightening up dead or dying satellites and saving satellite operators the cost of replacing them altogether. Extending the lifespan of satellites also helps stop space debris – a growing problem in orbit as the world launches record numbers of satellites into space every year. Removing a satellite from geosynchronous orbit can take decades.

The Northrop-Intelsat maintenance contract was a “win-win situation,” said Jean-Luc Froeliger, vice president at Intelsat, at a news conference on Monday. The IS-10-02 satellite performed well, Froeliger said, but without Northrop’s MEV-2 they would have had to decompose it because it was nearly empty.

MEV-2 is currently clipped to the back of IS-10-02 and serves as a life support for the satellite by providing new power and navigation control. The two will operate as a “combined stack” for the next five years. After that, MEV-2 will disconnect from IS-10-02 and head for a meeting with another client satellite.

IS-10-02 will die after MEV-2 takes off. A company spokeswoman said the satellite will retreat to a “graveyard orbit,” or the place in space where old satellites can turn into space junk without getting in the way of younger satellites.

Northrop is also building an improved satellite maintenance system called a Mission Robotic Vehicle (or MRV). That spacecraft will meet with obsolete satellites to install orbital first aid kits called Mission Extension Pods designed to provide propulsion and power. Each MRV can carry six pods. MRV’s debut launch is scheduled for early 2024, Anderson said.

Update Monday 7:10 PM ET: This story has been updated to add Intelsat’s answer to a question about the fate of IS-10-02 after MEV-2 takes off. It will die.