Northrop Grumman saves satellites from graveyard


  • Northrop Grumman’s Mission Expansion Vehicle breathes new life into old satellites.
  • The company is leading the way in in-orbit services for commercial and government customers.
  • Northrop Grumman powers the systems and technologies we rely on every day.

When Tom Wilson, who leads Northrop Grumman’s space business, and his team examined a booming commercial space industry in the late 2000s, they saw a big problem – and a big opportunity.

Wilson and his team saw that ever-growing constellations of commercial and military satellites had become a mainstay of modern society: everyone from the soldier on the battlefield to the merchants transporting the world’s goods at sea to the weekend jogger -end over a long time, relied on space. -services based on communications, location, navigation, etc.

Satellites, quite simply, had become “part of the fabric of our global economy,” Wilson said.

The problem is that satellites — especially those in high-altitude geosynchronous orbit — are extremely expensive to build and launch. They also have a limited supply of onboard fuel needed to reposition and maneuver the spacecraft, a process known as “stationkeeping”.

Once the fuel reserve is exhausted, an otherwise fully functional satellite is rendered useless, and in geosynchronous orbit – where some of the most advanced and expensive satellites operate – they expend the last of their fuel while moving to a so-called orbit graveyard orbit, an outer orbit where retired satellites are away from active satellites.

“We looked at how we could change the economics of space and make orbital domains more sustainable,” Wilson said.

Enter the Mission Expansion Vehicle (MEV)a first-of-its-kind technology launched in 2019 that charts a more sustainable path for the satellites so essential to our lives.

GEO satellites typically run out of fuel after 15 years, and each year about 20 fully functioning satellites are retired.

Northrop Grumman MEVs change the math for customers looking to save money on replacing older satellites by docking with them in orbit and supporting station-keeping functions.

MEVs already provide services for two Intelsat spacecraft that provide bandwidth for satellite television and Internet services on Earth.

Docking with a satellite orbiting Earth at an altitude of 22,000 miles and traveling 7,000 miles per hour is no small feat, but MEV-1 did it in 2020 and MEV-2 repeated the feat in 2021.

New GEO satellites can cost hundreds of millions of dollars to build and millions more to launch into space. Deferring these costs saves companies millions, allowing customers to invest in new technologies and keep revenue-generating satellites in orbit longer.

Changing timelines adds a disruptive force to the market, Wilson said.

“It’s a new ecosystem in space,” he added. “Allowing satellites to last longer generates more profit for commercial enterprises, which do not have to build a new one immediately.”

Part of a growing portfolio

Northrop Grumman continued to build on its already strong portfolio of space programs, including the GEOStar family of satellite bus systems that can be used to host a wide range of payloads.

As Northrop Grumman’s portfolio continues to expand, innovative solutions continue to be realized, including the upcoming launch of two satellites that will make up Norway’s Arctic Satellite Broadband Mission (ASBM). ASBM will provide reliable high-speed internet access to the polar region, significantly improving and extending existing connections in the challenging far north.

The ASBM satellites use state-of-the-art communications technology from Northrop Grumman’s work on the US Air Force’s Advanced Very High Frequency Satellites and combine it with a variant of the GEOStar satellite to rapidly deliver world-class capability that meets to customer requirements.

“I think people associate Northrop Grumman only with the most complex and hard-to-solve problems like the James Webb Space Telescope — incredibly complex systems,” Wilson said. “As we continue to expand our portfolio, not only can we do the complex, but we can do the production, we can do the simple, and we can do it innovatively and affordably.

“We’re moving towards a balanced portfolio that shows we can do the super complex like we always have,” he added, “but today with our new capabilities, we can also do the small and very quickly.”

And after?

Northrop Grumman is preparing to launch two new products, including a customer-owned and operated spacecraft similar to the MEV called the Mission Extension Pod (MEP). The MEP will be attached to expensive commercial satellites in geosynchronous orbit operating at low fuel consumption and will provide an additional six years of service life.

The MEP is partly made possible by another Northrop Grumman product, the Mission Robotic Vehicle (MRV), which will be launched in 2024.

The MRV incorporates a robotic arm payload developed by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. The MRV will use its robotic payload to attach the MEP to client satellites, as well as to repair satellites in space, a real leap forward, Wilson said.

“We are leading the market, moving at a very rapid pace and fielding technology…that will allow us, over time, to add increased robotic capability in space to enable an entirely new mission domain for commercial and national security space,” he said. .

“The ability to repair satellites that have had problems or extend their lifespan or swap in-orbit capabilities is a commercial service that we have a proven track record in and will bring to the government side as well.”

All of this contributes to a bright future for Northrop Grumman in the space sector, Wilson said, creating new forward-looking business and government businesses on top of decades of high-end space know-how.

He said, “We take our deep mission expertise, gained over 60 years of systems engineering, and envision where the markets and adversaries are heading as we develop the technology our customers will need a decade from now. or more.

See how Northrop Grumman solves the toughest problems in space.

This post was created by Insider Studios with Northrop Grumman.

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