World's First: Spacecraft Docks to Commercial Satellite In Orbit

For the first time, a commercial spacecraft has docked to an orbiting satellite. Northrop Grumman’s “Mission Extension Vehicle-1” (MEV-1) docked with a Intelsat 901, a communication satellite that’s been in orbit for 18 years.

The hope behind this exercise is to one day have specialized satellites regularly refueling older satellites while in orbit, thereby extending those older orbiters’ life cycles. The helper satellite’s could also assist the older ones in changing their orbital paths, if need be. And finally, these helper satellites could be part of a crucial task — an interstellar cleanup, assisting in cutting down on the amount of space junk already cluttering up Earth’s orbit.

“This is the first time in history a docking has been performed with a satellite that was not pre-designed with docking in mind,” vice president at SpaceLogistics, a subsidiary of Northrop Grumman, Joe Anderson said during a conference today, as quoted by The New York Times.

To complete the demonstration, Intelsat changed the orbit of its older satellite to match MEV-1. The older satellite has been running out of fuel (and has been out of commission) since December.

MEV-1 is planning to extend the lifetime of the retired satellite by five years before pushing it to the “graveyard orbit” where satellites go to die once they’ve been decommissioned, as NYT reports.

Spacecraft like MEV-1 won’t be servicing just a single satellite. “When the customer no longer desires MEV’s service, the spacecraft will undock and move on to the next client satellite,” reads the Northrop Grumman’s website.

With the likes of SpaceX launching constellations made up of tens of thousands of planned satellites, Earth’s orbit is getting pretty cluttered. But orbital refueling stations like MEV-1 could reduce the need to send up even more satellites.

Future iterations could even inspect and repair older satellites and even enhance their performance by attaching new parts, according to the company.

READ MORE: A Meeting in Orbit Demonstrates a Space Junk Solution [The New York Times]

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