In the artist’s rendering, an MRV approaches a commercial satellite for MEP installation.
Northrop Grumman, SpaceLogistics
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It may be time to service your satellite.
A division within Northrop Grumman has become a world leader in recent years in extending the life of valuable satellites already in orbit. Like any tune-up, it involves a mechanic, but it’s a robot and performs a delicate dance above the earth.
The company is building more on the same business model. But how big is the market for satellite servicing, really, in an era when spacecraft are built and launched more cheaply and more frequently than ever?
I spoke this week with Jean-Luc Fröiger, senior vice president of space systems at Intelsat, whose company announced an order from Northrop Grumman’s space logistics unit for its latest service technology iteration.
A quick step back: In 2020, Northrop Grumman’s robotic spacecraft MEV-1 successfully docked with an older Intelsat satellite and extended its lifespan by five years, marking an industry first. A year later, the companies took that feat a step further, docking MEV-2 with an active Intelsat satellite.
A closer look at Intelsat’s IS-10-02 satellite as MEV-2 approaches for docking in orbit.
Northrop Grumman’s latest version of this tech represents a more flexible approach: a larger model called the MRV (or Mission Robotic Vehicle) will carry three MEPs (or Mission Extension Pods), which it plans to deliver and connect to three satellites in 2026. As before, the targets are large, expensive satellites operating in distant geosynchronous orbits.
Intelsat ordered one of the MEPs, as did Australian satellite operator Optus. A third is expected to sell soon.
Artist’s rendering of the mission robotic vehicle with the mission extension pod.
Northrop Grumman, Space Logistics
Froeliger explained that the new approach represents a shift in business strategy for Intelsat from “renting” MEVs to owning them for a few years.
“In the end, it’s all a business decision that depends on the value of the MEP versus the value of the annual MEV service,” Froeliger said.
While Intelsat has “study agreements with three or four other companies” for future satellite servicing missions, Froliger noted that Northrop Grumman is the most “advanced” in this space sub-sector.
But the size of the market today largely depends on the number of geosynchronous satellites that benefit from life extension. Froeliger said that 10% of the 56 satellites in Intelsat’s fleet are candidates – making satellite service still a niche market.
“Others we will replace with brand new satellites,” Fröiger said.
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