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Two private satellites just docked in space in historic first for orbital servicing

In a historic first for satellite (opens in new tab) operations, a commercial spacecraft "helper" has docked with a working communications satellite to provide life-extension services.

The companies involved in the meetup  — Northrop Grumman (opens in new tab) and Intelsat — hailed the operation, which took place Tuesday (Feb. 25), as the beginning of a new era that will see robotic spacecraft giving new life to older satellites that are low on fuel or require repairs.

Because launch costs constitute a large part of a satellite's total price tag, the hope is that refurbishing aging satellites will eventually reduce the expense of services that satellites provide, such as telecommunications or weather monitoring.

Video: Watch Northrop Grumman's MEV-1 dock with Intelsat 901! (opens in new tab)

The docking occurred Tuesday at 2:15 a.m. EST (0715 GMT). On one side of the meeting was a spacecraft called Mission Extension Vehicle-1 (opens in new tab) (MEV-1), overseen by Northrop Grumman and its subsidiary SpaceLogistics LLC; on the other was a telecommunications satellite, Intelsat's IS-901, Northrop Grumman said in a statement (opens in new tab)

This maneuver took place about 180 miles (290 kilometers) above geosynchronous orbit, which is at an altitude of 22,236 miles (35,786 km). That's roughly 90 times higher than the International Space Station.

Intelsat IS-901 is low on fuel and was removed from service in December 2019 to prepare for this operation, according to the statement. Controllers raised the satellite's orbit and awaited MEV-1's arrival. Now that the pair have docked, MEV-1 will perform checkouts of IS-901, then push the satellite back to its normal orbit in late March, according to Northrop Grumman.

"Intelsat has been at the forefront of innovation and game-changing space technology for decades," Mike DeMarco, Intelsat's executive vice president and chief services officer, said in the statement. "Pushing the boundaries of what's possible is in our DNA here — that's why we didn't hesitate to sign up to be MEV-1's first customer."

The agreement between the companies calls for MEV-1 (which launched in October 2019) to support IS-901 for five years. When that time is over, MEV-1 will push IS-901 into a decommissioning orbit to make room for a newer satellite to take IS-901's slot in geosynchronous orbit. The Northrop Grumman spacecraft can dock and undock with several spacecraft over the span of its mission and will be able to deliver more than 15 years of life-extension services, the statement continued.

"This life-extension service is just the first step in an expansive technology development plan," Northrop Grumman stated. "[Our] vision is to establish a fleet of satellite-servicing vehicles that not only extend the life of satellites, but provide other services such as inclination changes and spacecraft inspections, as well as use advanced robotics technology to perform additional functions such as in-orbit repair and assembly."

Northrop Grumman plans to launch a second Mission Extension Vehicle, called MEV-2, later this year to support another Intelsat satellite.

There are numerous other upcoming initiatives to make satellites work longer in space. To name a few: Made in Space's Archinaut spacecraft is supposed to maintain satellites and build large structures in orbit, NASA's Restore-L robotic refueling demonstration is set to launch soon, and the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is developing the Robotic Servicing of Geosynchronous Satellites.

In past years, NASA completed several robotic refueling demonstrations on the International Space Station, and DARPA launched two prototype servicing satellites in 2007 under the Orbital Express program.

Follow Elizabeth Howell on Twitter @howellspace. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook

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Elizabeth Howell
Staff Writer, Spaceflight

Elizabeth Howell, Ph.D., is a staff writer in the spaceflight channel since 2022. She was contributing writer for Space.com (opens in new tab) for 10 years before that, since 2012. As a proud Trekkie and Canadian, she also tackles topics like diversity, science fiction, astronomy and gaming to help others explore the universe. Elizabeth's on-site reporting includes two human spaceflight launches from Kazakhstan, three space shuttle missions in Florida, and embedded reporting from a simulated Mars mission in Utah. She holds a Ph.D. and M.Sc. in Space Studies from the University of North Dakota, and a Bachelor of Journalism from Canada's Carleton University. Elizabeth is also a post-secondary instructor in communications and science since 2015. Her latest book, Leadership Moments from NASA, is co-written with astronaut Dave Williams. Elizabeth first got interested in space after watching the movie Apollo 13 in 1996, and still wants to be an astronaut someday.