BREAKTHROUGH: New life for old communications satellites

Courtesy of The Verge

I’ll admit, I was caught by surprise on this one. But the news is so cool, I wanted to share it.

For the first time, one satellite has been used to repair another satellite. According to The Verge, a satellite called MEV-1 has successfully docked with the Intelsat 901 satellite, giving that satellite at least five more years of service life.

Here’s the story

A satellite should be able to last a very long time. The actual satellite operates off solar power, and as long as the electronics hold up, it should keep working. But satellites drift in space and require rockets to put them back where they are supposed to go. Those rockets use liquid fuel. It costs a ton of money to send things into space, so it’s a balance – you put in as much fuel as you can afford to send up, hoping it will last long enough. When a satellite is about to run out of fuel, the last of its fuel is used to send it to a parking orbit so it can’t crash into other satellites.

Such was the case with Intelsat 901, a communications satellite launched in 2001 and recently retired. The story would have ended there, except for this new mission.

Enter MEV-1

MEV-1 is, as far as I can tell, nothing more than a rocket and a little bit of electronics to keep it functioning. It’s designed to clamp onto an existing satellite and provide propulsion services. It doesn’t actually refuel the old satellite. Instead it acts as a strap-on secondary engine.

MEV-1 went up to where Intelsat was sitting. I’m not sure why, but it took three months to get there. I can only assume that it was moving very slowly to save fuel. It would be pretty stupid for it to use up all its fuel getting there, if you think about it.

MEV’s hookup with Intelsat 901 also marks the first time one satellite has intentionally docked with another, unless you count restocking missions for the international space station. I don’t know about you but I think that’s pretty cool.

This could mean a lot for AT&T

AT&T currently operates 12 satellites, although two are scheduled to go offline soon. They could reduce that fleet down to just the three satellites launched since 2014 if they really wanted to. Or, if they wanted to keep a large part of that fleet going, they could launch missions like MEV-1 to add additional propulsion. Even more interestingly, now that they know one satellite can dock with another, new satellites could be designed so that they can have their fuel tanks refilled. That would make it possible for a future satellite to refuel them and keep them working, a lot more easily.

AT&T’s oldest currently working satellites are 18 years old. Even if the company doesn’t need them, keeping them working and leasing the capacity to another company could save AT&T billions of dollars and provide a new revenue stream. It would also slow the spread of “space junk” and conserve resources. All in all, it’s a win.

About the Author

Stuart Sweet
Stuart Sweet is the editor-in-chief of The Solid Signal Blog and a "master plumber" at Signal Group, LLC. He is the author of over 6,000 articles and longform tutorials including many posted here. Reach him by clicking on "Contact the Editor" at the bottom of this page.