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First private space rescue mission sees two satellites latch together

By Leah Crane A view of IS-901 satellite from the Mission Extension Vehicle-1, which docked with it and took over its steeringNorthrop GrummanFor the first time ever, two private satellites have latched onto one another in orbit around Earth as part of a rescue mission that will give a flagging spacecraft five more years of…

By Leah Crane

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A view of IS-901 satellite from the Mission Extension Vehicle-1, which docked with it and took over its steering

Northrop Grumman

For the first time ever, two private satellites have latched onto one another in orbit around Earth as part of a rescue mission that will give a flagging spacecraft five more years of operation. This technique could be used in the future to repair and service satellites in space.

The first, called IS-901, is a communications satellite that was launched by Intelsat in 2001 and is now running out of fuel. The second, called the Mission Extension Vehicle-1 (MEV-1), was developed by Northrop Grumman and is designed to attach to other satellites and take over, controlling their orbits and which direction they point. It was launched in October and reached IS-901 on 25 February.

When the two spacecraft came together, MEV-1 latched onto IS-901. It is now performing diagnostic tests before the combined double-satellite moves from the higher orbit in which this manoeuvre took place back down to a lower orbit to operate for another planned five years.

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Intelsat is the first customer to be serviced by MEV-1, but if all goes well, it won’t be the only one. These two satellites will stick together for five years, and then MEV-1 will return IS-901 to a “graveyard” orbit out of the way of working satellites and move on to a new partner.

Another similar satellite, called MEV-2, is scheduled for launch later this year, and Northrop Grumman said in a press release that they plan to develop a whole fleet of service satellites.

This could be a helpful step in dealing with Earth’s space junk problem – the thousands of dead satellites in orbit that could prove problematic for space flight in the future. If satellites can be made to last longer and moved around even after they’re broken or out of fuel, it could mitigate the problem or even start to bring down the old junk that’s been up there for years.

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