On-Orbit Satellite Refueling, Rescue, Repair, Scrapping, Servicing
[This is an old page being updated. Most of the updates are at the bottom.]
Any entity engaging in space development should add this extremely valuable service to their portfolio: emergency services for satellites already in space.
Right now, if a satellite fails in space, there is no repairman there to fix it. Satellite failures are not uncommon, the loss of revenues from satellites can be very high, and insurance premiums are extremely high compared to other sectors of the economy. A big chunk of the cost of a satellite system is in the insurance, as the insurance companies pay heavily for every failure. Failures have also caused companies to lose their competitive edge due to delays in delivering service in this rapidly changing and intensely competitive business.
Repair missions, both robotic and manned, will become more feasible with the introduction of one or more reusable orbit-to-orbit transfer vehicles and abundant and affordable fuel propellants from asteroidal material.
There are quite a few recently launched satellites drifting around worthlessly in bad orbits because an upper rocket stage failed during initial launch and deployment. There are also a number of satellites which failed in orbit after they operated for awhile and customers came to rely upon them.
The problem was well articulated by journalist Martyn Williams of Newsbytes in January, 1997):
By the time a replacement is launched, one's competitiveness in the industry is diminished.
There are numerous examples of launch failures, e.g., an upper stage failing which leaves the satellite in a worthless orbit. These would be the easiest "repair" missions. The value? Consider that AT&T Skynet sued Lockheed Martin Corp. for $250 million over failure of an upper stage (though I don't know the dollar amount or terms of the eventual settlement).
Satellites sometimes fail after successful launch and deployment, e.g., solar panels don't deploy or something comes loose and needs to be reconnected. For example, the Canadian satellite Anik-E1 went dead during launch. The same day, its sister satellite, Anik-E2, already operating in geosynchronous orbit, went out of control when its momentum-wheel control system went out of control, causing the satellite to spin around endlessly. The Anik-E1 replacement experienced a simple electrical disconnection of one of its solar panels, and is now operating on half power so that it can broadcast fewer channels. These would all be relatively simple repairs in space, especially if the satellites are designed for potential repair in a modular way.
Sometimes, both launch and on-site problems dog a company to death. For example, the Geostar satellite system experienced both a launch failure and an in-place satellite failure, and after failure of these two satellites the business was left in a shambles, and shortly thereafter declared a failure.
In mid-1997, Japan's space agency lost a satellite called "Midori" on which it had spent $759 million. It carried $229 million worth of NASA instruments (though it's not clear from our sources if that's included in the $759 million). The mission was supposed to be the key to an international research project on global climate changes. It also measured ozone levels. It went into orbit last August but the solar power panel failed, leaving the satellite without power. The fix would probably be quite simple if there were a repairman in space.
On May 19, 1998, about 90% of the 45 million pagers in the United States failed suddenly when one satellite failed, the PanAmSat Galaxy 4. Some television, radio and retail store networks also lost service, totaling considerable losses. The cause was a computer failure which caused the satellite to spin in an incorrect orientation. Fortunately, there was a backup satellite with sufficient capacity and it was quickly decided to abandon the satellite and switch the paging service to the backup satellite (whereas at least some TV and radio services made arrangements with other satellites). That meant having all local paging companies reorient their central antennas (thousands of antennas per hour, it was reported) to point to the spare satellite. After a few days, nearly everyone was back in service, fortunately, as it was the business lifelines of many people (e.g., road technicians, doctors). The failed satellite was idled and another satellite eventually moved to its position.
Recall the problems with the first two satellites launched by Orbcomm in 1995, which were supposed to be the first of a 36-satellite network to offer worldwide data and paging services but failed in orbit, causing serious problems with the sponsor's finances.
Insurance companies would probably give discounts to companies contracting with a maintenance operation, and the insurance companies may even invest to help finance establishing such a capability. If insurance companies would reduce premiums enough for customers who also pay for a satellite servicing company contract, this might justify buying such a service contract which could help support the on-orbit satellite servicing industry.
The first customers may be companies which operate many satellites in geosynchronous orbit.
One capability often discussed is a propulsion spacecraft which could attach itself to a variety of satellites for the purpose of extending its life after it runs out of fuel, or moving the satellite to a new orbit, or rescue if its propulsion system fails to deliver it to the desired location. It does not need to refuel the existing tank, but can just serve as an add-on.
As of 2013, ViviSat is developing a Mission Extension Vehicle (MEV) which would extend the life of old satellites as well as move them to a new orbit such as if they are sold to a less developed country. ViviSat is a joint venture of ATK and U.S. Space LLC.
MDA Corp., in Canada, is developing a Space Infrastructure Servicing vehicle.
NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center has a Satellite Servicing Capabilities Office which has mounted at the International Space Station an experimental module called the Robotic Refueling Mission, whereby Phase 1 has been operating up to the time of this writing in early 2013.
DARPA has the Phoenix Program, which is far more ambitious, seeking to assemble big satellites in orbit, as well as scrap old satellites.