Companies and other organizations in the industry are also wrestling with various concerns, ranging from legal and regulatory obstacles to the development of standards, now that the technical feasibility of the satellite servicing has been proved. In April, SpaceLogistics, a Northrop Grumman company, docked its first 2 Mission Extension Vehicle (MEV) spaceships to Intelsat satellites. Both are extending the life of those aged geostationary communications satellites by up to five years each.
During a discussion panel at the AMOS Conference in Hawaii on September 15, Joe Anderson, who serves as the vice president in charge of the operations and business development at the Space Logistics, remarked, “It was our Kitty Hawk time, if you will, for satellite maintenance industry.”
The technical accomplishment of those 2 MEV operations, as well as early demonstrations of Astroscale’s End-of-Life Services by the Astroscale-demonstration (ELSA-d) spaceship to assess its potential to gather satellites, raises a slew of other challenges for satellite servicing firms, many of which will be addressed at the satellite servicing sector consortium CONF’s Global Satellite Servicing Forum this week.
The first is licensing. According to Anderson, the SpaceLogistics process began with an interagency evaluation. “It was recognized that this is unlike anything that had ever been licensed, and there was a lot of confusion about how to license this,” Anderson recounted. A long-standing difficulty for the business in the United States is that no single federal entity has defined responsibilities for satellite servicing and other unique space uses. “In the end, it was deemed that we were primarily closely affiliated with GEO comsats,” he claimed, adding that the FCC would be responsible. “From the standpoint of the Outer Space Treaty, the FCC has now become our supervisory agency.”
Astroscale licensed the ELSA-d mission via the United Kingdom. The company also had to cooperate with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s commercial remote sensing office, which licenses commercial imaging equipment, including the cameras on its MEVs. “When something is given to an insurer or regulator for the first time, it is normally viewed with some skepticism,” said Mike Lindsay, Astroscale’s chief technology officer. “There were legitimate concerns about imaging different things in space,” he explained, “so new laws had to be enacted.”
As it prepared to test delivering and subsequently capturing a customer satellite from the main ELSA-d spacecraft, one of the most important issues was collaborating with other satellite operators. As satellite servicing becomes more widespread, there is a movement to develop standards that would make it easier for various satellite servicing vehicles to connect with a variety of satellites. “Regulators liked being able to expand on that connection and develop the best practices,” he said. “The concept of preparing the client for the end-of-life services or even on-orbit servicing is actually going to pave the stage for future operations that are going to be more complex,” Lindsay added.