David Pile is one of the Vimeet365 Space's ambassadors and is the regional Director for Northrop Grumman. Northrop Grumman just launched and tested a new satellite servicing robot and we would like to have David's insights on this new development.
David, can you tell us more about your background and current role in Northrop Grumman?
Absolutely, but first please can I say many thanks for this opportunity to contribute to your newsletter. I work as the Regional Director for the UK, European and MENA region for Northrop Grumman Space Systems. My role essentially provides the ‘link’ between our customers, and our teams, technologies and capabilities within the Space business. As a leading provider of Space capabilities, we have been trusted by our commercial and government customers to deliver over 260 space systems and thousands of space components and subsystems. Our business has been developing and manufacturing our range of satellites and spacecraft for over 25 years, and since the launch of our first satellite in 1997, we have accumulated over 300 cumulative years in orbit with excellent levels of reliability.
Why is it important to prolong the life of a Satellite, and what are the implications of improving the technology to do so for the future?
GEO satellites are typically decommissioned simply because they have run out of fuel. By extending their lives, we enable the operator to continue the valuable mission that the satellite performs while deferring the $100’s millions it would require to replace it. Our propulsion augmentation system also enables satellites the opportunity to maneuver at will, without regret to the impact of service life; this is extremely important from a defensive resiliency perspective for our national security customers.
We see our Mission Extension Vehicle (MEV) as a first step in a logical path of space-based capabilities within Space Mobility & Logistics (the US Space Force’s term) and On-Orbit Servicing, Augmentation and Manufacturing (NASA’s term). The safety of rendezvous, proximity and docking operations that we have proven unlocks the next logical step of robotic servicing in orbit. Our next- generation system, launching in 2024, will demonstrate the ability to safely inspect and use robotics to repair, augment, or re-locate client vehicles to further unlock the capability to assemble and manufacture spacecraft on orbit.
Whether the spacecraft are intended for commercial, defense, national security, civil, or exploration purposes, logistics servicing in space is a requirement to meet mission and affordability goals. Our SpaceLogistics team is making that real today with MEV and focusing on the next logical steps.
How many Mission Extension Vehicles (MEV) are currently operational and how efficient is the
process of servicing damaged Satellites?
We have two Mission Extension Vehicles (MEV) on orbit today, both servicing operational Intelsat satellites, the IS-901 and IS-10-02 respectively. These client satellites are not damaged, they were just nearing the end of their fuel life. We have contracted with Intelsat to provide 5 years of mission extension to each client spacecraft. At the end of those contracts, in the mid 2020’s, each MEV will undock from their client and move on to their next client satellite. Both MEVs will then have another 10 years of expected life, and sufficient fuel to perform several life extensions, relocations, and inclination pull-downs of other client spacecraft.
The next step would be to have Mission Assembly and Repair Vehicles (MARV) that would allow in-space assembly, repair and refueling. How practical is this technology and what are your plans for this development in the future?
Our next generation system that will launch in 2024, is called the Mission Robotic Vehicle (MRV). Its primary mission is to install propulsion augmentation devices we call Mission Extension Pods (MEPs). The MEPs can provide approximately 6 years of life extension to a typical GEO satellite. The MRV will also be able to perform detailed robotic inspections, repairs and relocation of satellites in GEO. Initially the MRV will be servicing satellites that were not designed to be serviced however, we believe that once persistent robotic servicing is available beginning in 2025, then all future spacecraft launched will be prepared to be serviced in some way. For example, in terms of refueling, we are developing what we intend to be an open standard refueling interface, that we intend to incorporate on our MRV so that it is refuellable. In addition, we have several customers that have expressed an interest in this capability, and we will be working with CONFERS to create open standards for the industry to utilise common refueling and robotics interfaces. We see this activity as a key enabler towards affordability, modularity and interoperability. Future evolutions of serviceability could also include power and data ports, similar to a computer USB port, to allow for easy component replacement or payload upgrades.
Going forward, what are the plans of Northrop Grumman to reduce the space junk from the orbit that has been building up for years?
Firstly, our MEV’s and MEPs are contributing towards improving space sustainability by extending the lives of existing satellites and reducing the need for launching new spacecraft into orbit. Secondly, the technologies we have developed, and are developing, can be directly applied to the growing threat of space debris. Beyond the basic rendezvous and docking technologies of the MEV, we are currently exploring ways in which we can use our Mission Robotic Vehicle (MRV) to capture and remove tumbling debris from the GEO orbit – its first operating environment. Subsequently, all of our technologies can be applied to other orbital regimes to address customer requirements as they develop. However, one of the current challenges for sustained space debris clean-up activities is the identification of an enduring funding source to pay for the debris removal missions.
Can you shed a little light on some other plans that Northrop Grumman has for the Space in the coming future?
With MEV being our 1 st generation system, and our Mission Robotic Vehicle (MRV) and Mission Extension Pods (MEPs) as our 2 nd generation servicing system, we are now developing our 3 rd generation system that will interact with satellites that have been designed to be serviced and refueled on orbit. The next capability increment beyond servicing prepared satellites will be to start assembling and manufacturing satellites directly in orbit. By doing this we believe we can overcome the many limitations imposed on satellite design today by launch constraints. This will enable much lighter, larger and capable satellites, and will directly support our exploration of the universe including to Mars and beyond.