Satellite rejuvenation stations could reduce orbital junk

Paul Raven @ 21-07-2010

We already know that there’s a whole lot of junk at the top of the gravity well; a lot of it is dead satellites, and as much as we could blast the things apart, it’d probably be a lot more economical to ensure they have a longer working life. Enter MacDonald Dettwiler and Associates, a Canadian outfit who propose building an orbital platform for refuelling and repairing ailing satellites:

MDA wants to fill that niche by launching a satellite refueling station that can track down and dock with satellites in the sky, filling them up with hydrazine and performing small repairs. Such a service could double, or even triple, the lives of satellites already flying, provided their on-board instruments are still working properly.

But such a refueling station isn’t the same as pulling up to the gas pump, or even refueling a jet in flight. Satellites are roaring through space at nearly 7,000 miles per hour, so a fueling station would have to first catch the satellite in motion, then somehow finagle the fueling port open with a robotic arm of some kind — if, that is, the door hasn’t been seared closed by years of exposure to space. It’s been done exactly twice before, but both times it happened under experimental conditions where the satellite and the refueling vehicle were both new and designed to be compatible.

Still, it’s not impossible and MDA thinks it could make $100 million a year servicing satellites which themselves are very expensive to replace.

Another potentially lucrative business model for commercial space companies, and a lot less adventurous than asteroid mining (though I suspect it may turn out to be more technically challenging in some respects). It also looks (to my layman’s eye, at least) more sensible than the previously-mooted idea of sending up wandering repairbots.

Probably too little too late for poor old Zombiesat, though.


Rogue (satellite) hunter

Paul Raven @ 13-10-2009

Things are going to get a little busier up in geostationary orbit… not only are there destined to be an increasing number of broken satellites cluttering up this important orbital region, but soon there’ll be little robot repair bots flying around up there trying to fix them (or push them out of the way):

Their robots will dock with failing satellites to carry out repairs or push them into “graveyard orbits”, freeing vital space in geostationary orbit. This is the narrow band 22,000 miles above the Earth in which orbiting objects appear fixed at the same point. More than 200 dead satellites litter this orbit. Within 10 years that number could increase fivefold, the International Association for the Advancement of Space Safety has warned.

Klaus Landzettel, head of space robotics at DLR, said engineering advances, including the development of machines that can withstand temperatures ranging from -170C (-274F) to 200C (392F), meant that the German robots will be “ready to be used on any satellite, whether it’s designed to be docked or not”.

Hellooooo, orbital commercial warfare! Rival communications company squeezing you out in a particular region? Not any longer – not once their sat takes an unscheduled trip to the Lagrange point!