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Is It (Finally) Space Tug Time? ViviSat Thinks So

Satellite Technology

Satellite Technology Feature Article

January 18, 2011

Is It (Finally) Space Tug Time? ViviSat Thinks So

By Doug Mohney, Contributing Editor

During the Intelsat Galaxy 15 conference call this week, I asked if the company was looking at in-orbit servicing afresh these days? The answer I basically got was "Yes, we would use it if it was there, but it wasn't there, so..."

In a déjà vu moment, U.S. Space LLC and ATK (News - Alert) announced the creation of ViviSat on the same day, a "new satellite life extension venture," proclaims the press release. ViviSat promises to provide geosync satellite operators with "flexible, scalable, capital-efficient, and low-risk in-orbit mission extensions and protection services" to add years of revenue-producing life of a satellite.

ViviSat CEO Craig Weston told me the company's announcement wasn't planned to take place on the same day as the Intelsat (News - Alert) press conference, but "serendipitous.” Westin, a retired U.S. Air Force Major General , spent a large part of his career developing, launching and operating satellites with his last space-focused tour as the Chief Information Officer and Director of Research for the National Reconnaissance Office.

Servicing satellites in orbit has been the dream of many for decades. Most satellites run out of fuel before the (very expensive) payloads onboard expire and there's always a need among operators to be able to boost a satellite from low earth orbit up to geosynchronous orbit when a launch doesn't go quite as planned.

"On-orbit servicing is very compelling from a price vs. benefit standpoint," said Weston. "Once one operator does it, then everyone will do this and there will be a great demand... it will change the nature of the satellite industry and do so very cost-effectively."

ViviSat's Mission Extension Vehicle (MEV) is designed to dock and latch onto an in-orbit satellite, providing an independently fuelled and operated maneuvering capability. An MEV can provide long-term station-keeping and attitude control, relocation to different orbits or orbital slots, de-orbiting, and rescue and re-orbiting of satellites stuck where they are not supposed to be.

Due to ongoing talks with satellite operators and competitive concerns, Westin couldn't provide details about potential costs and operations for a MEV mission, but he said that based upon the first round of marketing and discussions with all the major commercial satellite operators, ViviSat would be able to provide a "very attractive" price point for a consortium to lease one or more MEVs.

"There are a number of concepts," said Westin. "It depends on the customer or consortium of customers that want to use it. The MEV has a 12 year mission life, so it could service any number of satellites, maybe as a time share between operators. It can dock and undock until its own fuel runs out."

For example, a single MEV could be launched and could serve six satellites for two years. Or a pair of MEVs could be purchased, one parked in low earth orbit to boost wayward satellites up to geosync and the other servicing existing satellites in geosync.

The initial MEV offering will not be refueled in orbit, but Westin says "the possibility could happen in the future" and would require establishing an on-orbit fuel depot –not something within the current concept.

Selection for a launcher is in process, with a final decision to be made among two rockets by February. Reliability and cost are keys factor for deciding who will get the nod and the company has no preferences as to a launch site.

But ViviSat isn't the only game in town (well, orbit). There's competition stirring afoot around the world for in-orbit servicing, one reason why Weston was somewhat circumspect in his conversation.   In the Great White North, space robotics maker MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates (MDA (News - Alert)) has not been shy about its ideas for in-orbit satellite servicing, European companies have done studies and Energia has even proposed a nuclear-powered space tug to "More than halve" satellite launch and orbiting costs, according to wire reports.

"We've assessed our competition and we're very competitive with what they may offer," said Weston.

ATK and U.S. Space are the founding investors for ViviSat and the company is already talking to other investors. Once the company secures contracts with one or more major satellite operators, it will then go and raise the financing to build and launch the first MEV.  

Doug Mohney is a contributing editor for TMCnet and a 20-year veteran of the ICT space. To read more of his articles, please visit columnist page.

Edited by Janice McDuffee

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