Intelsat's IS-901 satellite is nearly 20 years old, and well beyond its expected lifespan, but a small spacecraft built by Northrop Grumman succeeded in docking with the satellite and giving it another five years of service, the companies announced on Friday.
The feat is a space industry first, as extending the life of spacecraft already in orbit has only been done with human help before – such as the Hubble telescope servicing missions conducted by NASA astronauts.
Northrop Grumman's spacecraft MEV-1 successfully docked with IS-901 on Feb. 25. Intelsat's satellite was launched in June 2001 and was only intended to serve for 13 years, providing communications services in the Atlantic Ocean region. The satellite is in a fixed position above the Earth in what is known as geosynchronous orbit – tens of thousands of miles up to provide as wide a coverage area as effectively possible.
MEV-1 traveled out to the satellite, matched its orbit and then successfully docked with IS-901. In the process, MEV-1 took one-of-a-kind images of IS-901, as a geosynchronous satellite had never been seen from the view of another spacecraft before.
"Intelsat is proud to have pioneered this innovative first with Northrop Grumman," the company's chief services officer Mike DeMarco said in a statement. "We see increased demand for our connectivity services around the world, and preserving our customers' experience using innovative technology such as MEV-1 is helping us meet that need."
IS-901 has now returned to service, with MEV-1 essentially fueling and steering the satellite. MEV-1 will provide five years of life extension services to the satellite before returning IS-901 to an orbit for decommissioning. Then MEV-1 will be available to provide extension services for other satellites in orbit.
Intelsat has a contract with Northrop Grumman for a second mission extension spacecraft, MEV-2, which the company plans to use to service Intelsat's 1002 satellite later this year.
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