Space ‘tugboat’ will keep satellites in orbit

Orbital Recovery Corporation is planning the launch of a space ‘tugboat’ designed to keep telecom satellites in their proper orbital slot 10 years or more.

A new spacecraft system that will extend the useful life of telecommunications satellites by 10 years or more is in development for a first flight in 2004.

According to Orbital Recovery Corporation, the Geosynch Spacecraft Life Extension System (SLES) is a concept that will prolong the operating lifetimes of telecommunications satellites, which are usually scrapped when their on-board fuel supply runs out.

Definition work on the SLES has been completed by Orbital Recovery Corporation, which is now creating its industrial team by seeking competitive bids for spacecraft hardware and systems from international suppliers.

Orbital Recovery Corporation is unveiling the SLES this week at the World Summit for Satellite Financing in Paris, France, where the concept is being presented to telecommunications operators, satellite manufacturers, insurers and space industry contractors.

The SLES will reportedly operate as an orbital ‘tugboat,’ supplying the propulsion, navigation and guidance to keep a telecom satellite in its proper orbital slot for many years.

Another application is the rescue of spacecraft that have been placed in a wrong orbit by their launch vehicles, or which have become stranded in an incorrect orbital location during positioning manoeuvres.

Telecommunications satellites typically cost $250 million and are designed for an average useful on-orbit life of 10-15 years. Once their on-board propellant load is depleted, the satellites are boosted into a disposal orbit and decommissioned even though their communications relay payloads continue to function.

‘Today, there is no viable way to prolong the useful life of these very expensive and capable telecom satellites, resulting in the wasteful loss of valuable assets every year,’ said Walt Anderson, a telecommunications industry entrepreneur and Orbital Recovery Corporation’s chief executive officer. ‘With the SLES, we have an effective solution that works with any satellite, and which requires no special interface for the on-orbit rendezvous and docking.’

The SLES is designed to mate with all telecommunications satellites now in space or in development. After launch, the SLES will rendezvous with the telecommunications satellite, approaching it from below for docking. The linkup will use a proprietary docking device that connects to the telecom satellite’s apogee kick motor.

Control of the SLES will be handled by Orbital Recovery Corporation following its launch and during the initial free-flight phase. Docking and checkout of the SLES with its telecommunications satellite target will be a joint effort of Orbital Recovery Corporation and the telecom satellite operator.

Once the docking and checkout has been completed, long-term control will be handed over to the satellite operator – with technical support and service by Orbital Recovery Corporation throughout the operating lifetime.

Flight proven, off-the-shelf hardware will be used in production of the SLES spacecraft, which will be built around a main bus that contains the spacecraft control/management systems and the primary ion propulsion system.

Ion thruster packs on deployable booms will provide attitude control for the SLES and the telecommunications satellite to which it is mated.

These booms are extended to provide sufficient thruster impulse for control of the SLES/telecom satellite combination. Large deployable solar panels will provide power for the SLES’ on-board systems, as well as for the ion propulsion system.