Northrop Grumman’s MEV-1 Docks With Intelsat 901

Northrop Grumman’s MEV-1 Docks With Intelsat 901

Today, Northrop Grumman and Intelsat announced that the Mission Extension Vehicle-1 (MEV-1) docked with the Intelsat 901 communications satellite yesterday. MEV-1 is now controlling the satellite’s orbital position and attitude and will soon move the satellite back to its operational orbit where it will resume service.  This is the first docking between two commercial satellites.

MEV-1 was launched on a Russian Proton rocket on October 9, 2019.  Since then, it raised its orbit to an altitude 300 kilometers (180 miles) above geostationary orbit (GEO), which is 35,800 kilometers (22,300 miles) over the equator where Intelsat 901 and many other communications satellites operate.

Launched 18 years ago, Intelsat 901 was reaching the end of its lifetime because it was running out fuel, but is otherwise healthy.

View of Intelsat 901 satellite from Mission Extension Vehicle-1’s (MEV-1) “near hold” position during approach from approximately 20 meters (65 feet) with Earth in the background. The MEV successfully docked with the Intelsat 901 satellite on February 25, 2020. Credit: Northrop Grumman

Satellite operators are required to boost their satellites out of GEO into the higher “graveyard” orbit at the end of their lifetimes to avoid interference with other spacecraft.  Intelsat moved all its Intelsat 901 customers to a different Intelsat satellite and in December boosted Intelsat 901 into the graveyard orbit where MEV-1 was waiting for it.

Over the past several weeks, Northrop Grumman conducted a series of maneuvers to test MEV-1’s rendezvous and docking systems while also fine tuning the performance of its visible, infrared and LIDAR sensors.  Northrop Grumman and Intelsat refrained from any public statements during that time, but amateur satellite observers including Bob Christy (@zarya_info) and Jonathan McDowell (@planet4589) regularly reported on them.

During a teleconference today, Joe Anderson, Vice President of Operations and Business Development for SpaceLogistics, LLC, a Northrop Grumman company, said docking was achieved in the “early hours” Tuesday morning.  The company later clarified that it was at 2:15 am ET.

Tom Wilson, Vice President for Northrop Grumman Space Systems and President of SpaceLogistics exclaimed that “yesterday we made history.”

Intelsat CEO Stephen Spengler called it a “significant milestone” for Intelsat, Northrop Grumman and commercial satellites in general, and a “truly impressive feat.”

Intelsat had moved all of its customers off of Intelsat 901 and boosted the satellite into the graveyard orbit out an abundance of caution in case something went awry according to Jean-Luc Froeliger, Intelsat Vice President of Space Systems Engineering and Operations.  Because everything went so smoothly this time, they will not take those steps next time.  Intelsat and Northrop Grumman already have an agreement for MEV-2, which will launch later this year.

With MEV-1 now attached, Intelsat 901 will move back into an operational orbit and customers reinstated.  MEV-1 will remain with Intelsat 901 for five years and then be moved to another client satellite.

At the moment, Northrop Grumman plans to build only those two MEVs as it expands its offerings to Mission Extension Pods (MEPs) — fuel pods — that will be installed on satellites using a Mission Robotic Vehicle with robotic arms.

Northrop Grumman sees all of this as steps towards in-space refueling, assembly and manufacturing not only in Earth orbit, but beyond as NASA moves out to the Moon and Mars.

This article has been updated with further details.

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