ViviSat, with Orbital ATK [OA] at the helm, plans to launch its first Mission Extension Vehicle (MEV) in late 2018 to embark on commercial in-orbit servicing.

Orbital ATK is taking the largest of four previously-announced term-sheet agreements and converting it into a five year contract for life extension of a geostationary satellite that would otherwise run out of fuel and need to deorbit.

OrbitalATK logo

ViviSat’s MEVs are the culmination of roughly five years of technology development performed by Orbital ATK and its predecessors both solo and with partners NASA and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). Originally a project of ATK and U.S. Space, ViviSat came under the Orbital ATK umbrella following the company’s merger with Orbital Sciences in February 2015. At the Satellite 2015 Conference & Exhibition, ViviSat said the company had four term sheets, which are essentially agreements for services to be sold at an arranged schedule, duration and price once available. After another year of work, ViviSat is now preparing to begin its first mission.

“We have been working for a long time to get the business model right and the technical concept right to design it, prove it all out, and make sure the operators are comfortable with it,” Tom Wilson general manager of Orbital ATK’s ViviSat strategic venture, told Defense Daily sister publication Via Satellite. “We finally reached that milestone where we have all that behind us…We are going to go into the graveyard belt and test the system on a dead satellite to prove to the world that it works, and then we will go back into GEO and connect to a live satellite.”

Orbital ATK has not disclosed the name of the first customer, though the Wall Street Journal reports that it is likely Intelsat [I]. In 2011, Intelsat had a contract with Canada-based MacDonald Dettwiler and Associates (MDA) to use its Satellite In-orbit Servicer (SIS), but MDA was unable to secure further commitments and mothballed the project. Intelsat declined to comment on the alleged ViviSat contract.

MEVs are based on Orbital ATK’s GEOStar-3 satellite platform, incorporating rendezvous and proximity operations technology developed for the Cygnus resupply vessel and the Air Force’s Geosynchronous Space Situational Awareness Program (GSSAP). Orbital ATK has also been testing docking technology at the company’s laboratory in Maryland for about three years.

Orbital ATK is still working with ViviSat partner U.S. Space, though the relationship has changed considerably. U.S. Space’s role was to raise financing and sell the service, but now that Orbital ATK is taking on these responsibilities, Wilson said the partnership is being reshaped.

Wilson said the MEVs have a lifespan of 15 to 20 years and can perform life-extension missions for one, three or five year contracts. He estimated each MEV would do at least three to four missions. Orbital ATK would charge a price of less than the amount the customer makes from selling capacity on the satellite in order for both the operator and Orbital ATK to generate revenue. The company plans to field a fleet of at least five MEVs, launching one in 2018, followed by two in 2019 and two more in 2020.

In addition to prolonging the life of a satellite, MEVs can relocate satellites to try out new orbital slots or remove inclination from a spacecraft’s orbit. Wilson said the MEV attaches to the liquid apogee engine on the pack of a satellite, which is no longer used once the satellite reaches its intended orbit. He estimated about 80 percent of the more than 400 geostationary satellites in orbit have this engine.

“The other satellite turns off its ability to control itself and we take over the ability to control the combined stack,” Wilson said. “We stay attached to it with fuel and thrusters, and we basically fly it.”

Wilson described the MEVs as the beginning of what Orbital ATK refers to as the “space logistics market,” which includes not only lengthening the life of a spacecraft by flying it, but also repairing spacecraft and even assembling them on orbit. To cultivate this market, ViviSat plans to progressively add robotic capabilities to MEVs.

“With each launch we are going to add incremental capability, so eventually we will be able to dock to a satellite that doesn’t have a liquid apogee engine on the pack,” he said, adding that eventually robotic arms would be able to grab ahold of marmon bands to connect as well.

Wilson said ViviSat has a number of robotic technologies it can add. The company will start working with satellite operators to see what they want. He said some are interested in modifying satellites, as payload technology evolves.

Ahead of time, if ViviSat builds them the right way, it can go up and swap out payloads; it could increase the power on a satellite; ViviSat could also launch it empty and fuel it on orbit.

“There are a whole bunch of different scenarios that we are talking with potential customers about being able to do, and we are working on that technology today,” Wilson said.

From a regulatory standpoint, Wilson said the federal government has been very supportive with the licensing procedures. ViviSat has worked with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), the Department of Commerce, the Department of Defense (DOD) and the White House to ensure flight safety and to make sure the MEVs abide by outer space laws and treaties. ViviSat also has a commercial remote sensing license from the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) because of the cameras needed to look at the satellite for docking purposes, which may also catch a glimpse of the Earth.

“We are in dialogue with the White House and the FAA about receiving some sort of a mission license,” Wilson said. “The U.S. government is trying to figure out, as these new capabilities come on commercially, how they regulate. There is not a lot today, so we are working with them to develop that. I expect before we launch we will probably end up with a mission license from someplace inside the U.S. government that approves what we are doing.”

Further out, ViviSat is also considering refueling satellites directly, though Wilson cautioned that the technology is not yet mature. He said ViviSat is carefully watching a NASA program called Restore-L, which aims to demonstrate in-orbit refueling. NASA currently has the mission scheduled to launch in late 2019.

“Once they have done that [demonstration], which will be in the 2020 to 2021 timeframe, then we will look to leverage that technology proved on orbit by the government, and add it to our system,” Wilson said. “Eventually what you’ll see is a fleet of five to 10 MEVs working in conjunction with a refueller, where the MEV’s will grab a satellite, bring it over to the refueller, have that put more fuel in it, and then take it back. It will be a different business model.”

The MEVs could also do Active Debris Removal (ADR), though Wilson said there would need to be a commercial incentive to leverage them for this purpose.