Northrop Grumman to Launch New Satellite Service Robot for Commercial and Government Market

Space Logistics’ robotic mission vehicle has a robotic payload developed by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

WASHINGTON – Northrop Grumman today has two mission expansion vehicles in orbit providing position-keeping services for two Intelsat geostationary satellites that were running out of fuel.

The company is preparing to launch a new maintenance vehicle equipped with a robotic arm that will install propulsion jet packs on dying satellites.

Six as yet undisclosed customers have signed up to have their satellites serviced by the robotic mission vehicle, which is slated to launch in 2024, said Joe Anderson, vice president of operations and business development at Space Logistics. SpaceNews.

The MRV is the second generation maintenance vehicle of Space Logistics, a wholly owned subsidiary of Northrop Grumman. It combines the company’s Mission Extension Vehicle (MEV) that performs commercial operations with a robotic payload developed by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

DARPA shares its robotic arm with Space Logistics in a partnership that enables the company to use the technology for servicing commercial and government satellites in the geostationary belt.

“We will demonstrate some robotic capability for government through the execution of our trade missions,” Anderson said.

The main business mission of the MRV is to install small propulsion devices called mission extension pods. One of those units is inserted into the back of a client satellite propulsion system, adding six years of life to most geostationary satellites, he said.

All six clients signed condition sheets for seven Mission Extension Mods, Anderson said. Once the contracts are confirmed, the company will be able to release their names.

The first launch of MRV in 2024 will carry three pods. “With these six clients, the MRV manifesto is currently full until mid-2026,” he said. The MRV is expected to have a lifespan of 10 years. Space Logistics plans to install five to six mission expansion modules per year, Anderson added. “We plan to launch the second round of MEPs in early 2025.”

The installation of MEP or other devices is likely to become the primary focus of MRV. But Northrop Grumman is also looking for opportunities to perform other services such as detailed inspections, relocating customer vehicles, or simple repairs such as releasing a stuck solar panel or an antenna that is not deploying properly.

Anderson noted that commercial SRMs can do more than just keep the station docked like they currently do for Intelsat. They can also dock with tilted orbiting satellites and reduce their tilt, move satellites to other orbits, or perform remote inspections using light sensing and ranging (LIDAR) sensors.

DARPA and Space Logistics recently completed a preliminary design review of the MRV and are reviewing the mission extension pod at the company’s assembly plant in Dulles, Virginia this week.

Because the robotic arm was developed with funding from the Ministry of Defense, DARPA expects space logistics to show “the potential benefit of having a persistent service capability in GEO orbit that can meet the needs. government through commercial contracts with us, ”Anderson said.

He said Space Logistics has already booked a launch vehicle for the first MRV mission, but the contract has yet to be announced. The company’s MEV-1 was launched in October 2019 on a Proton rocket from International Launch Services. The MEV-2 was launched in August 2020 on Ariane-5 from Arianespace. The MRV that carries a payload designed by the US government is to be launched on a US rocket.

Maintenance of satellites in low Earth orbit

Northrop Grumman is focused on servicing geostationary satellites, but sees a future market in low earth orbit.

Orbit Fab, a startup that has developed a satellite refueling port, announced on September 7 that Northrop Grumman and Lockheed Martin are investing in the company.

“The LEO market is a bit more diverse than the geosynchronous market,” Anderson said. LEO satellites are smaller and cheaper, so maintenance or refueling might not be economical, he said. But for higher value assets, an extension of life would be worth considering.

NASA and Maxar Technologies are developing the In-Orbit Maintenance, Assembly, and Manufacturing System 1 (OSAM-1) to robotically refuel the Landsat 7 imagery satellite.

Not all low-flying satellites are disposable, Anderson said. The US government will launch expensive satellites that will benefit from maintenance, he said.

Beyond MRV, Space Logistics envisions a third-generation refueling-focused system, Anderson said.

This market will grow as more and more satellites are designed and built with refueling and docking ports. “The satellites we serve today were launched 20 years ago and were not designed to be refueled. So looking to the future, we see refueling as a very cheap one. There is a great demand and interest from our customers, especially from the military side. The desire to add refueling interfaces on spacecraft. And that’s why we invested in Orbit Fab.

Northrop Grumman and Lockheed Martin are actively working to shape the standard refueling interface that would help create a market for gas stations in space.

Anderson said the US Space Force and the Defense Innovation Unit are funding programs to add satellite refueling ports. “So there is certainly interest on the part of the US government in these capabilities. “

Rick Ambrose, executive vice president of Lockheed Martin Space, said News that the company is motivated to invest in maintenance technologies like Orbit Fab because customers are pushing the industry in that direction.

Establishing standards for mooring and supply ports will be essential, he said. Once the industry agrees on a common standard, the market will boom. Space should be like the Internet, Ambrose said. “If you don’t comply, you can’t play.”

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