Nearly-empty satel­lite gets new life

Times-Herald (Vallejo) - - NEWS - By Mar­cia Dunn

CAPE CANAVERAL, FLA. >> A com­mu­ni­ca­tion satel­lite al­most out of fuel has got­ten a new life af­ter the first space dock­ing of its kind.

Northrop Grum­man and In­tel­sat an­nounced the suc­cess­ful link-up nearly 22,500 miles (36,000 kilo­me­ters) above Earth on Wed­nes­day. It’s the first time two com­mer­cial satel­lites have joined in or­bit like this.

The re­cently launched satel­lite — Northrop Grum­man’s Mis­sion Ex­ten­sion Ve­hi­cle, or MEV-1 — will serve as a guide dog of sorts for its ag­ing In­tel­sat com­pan­ion.

Com­pany of­fi­cials called it a his­toric mo­ment for space com­merce, akin to the three-space­walker cap­ture of a way­ward In­tel­sat satel­lite 28 years ago.

“We’re push­ing the bound­aries of what many thought would be im­pos­si­ble,” said Tom Wil­son, pres­i­dent of SpaceL­o­gis­tics, a sub­sidiary of Northrop Grum­man. “The im­pos­si­ble is now a re­al­ity. To­day is a great ex­am­ple of that.”

The Northrup Grum­man satel­lite was launched from Kaza­khstan in Octo- ber. On Tues­day, it closed in on the 19-year-old In­tel­sat 901 satel­lite and clamped onto it. The duo will re­main at­tached for the next five years.

This novel res­cue was car­ried out at a slightly higher or­bit to avoid jeop­ar­diz­ing other satel­lites if some­thing had gone wrong. The In­tel­sat satel­lite was never de­signed for this kind of dock­ing; of­fi­cials said ev­ery­thing went well.

Once ma­neu­vered back down into its op­er­a­tional or­bit, the In­tel­sat satel­lite should re­sume op­er­a­tions in an­other month or two. MEV-1 will move on to an­other satel­lite in need once its five-year hitch is over.

Jean-Luc Froeliger, a vice pres­i­dent for In­tel­sat, said the satel­lite had just months of fuel re­main­ing. It ended ser­vice late last year and was sent into the slightly higher or­bit for the dock­ing.

Of­fi­cials de­clined to say how much the op­er­a­tion cost or what fu­ture res­cues might cost. In­tel­sat CEO Stephen Spen­gler said “there was a solid busi­ness case” for un­der­tak­ing the sal­vage at­tempt with five more years of op­er­a­tion ahead for the satel­lite.

It’s rem­i­nis­cent of an­other In­tel­sat res­cue that un­folded closer to home.

Space­walk­ing as­tro­nauts cap­tured the way­ward In­tel­sat 603 satel­lite dur­ing En­deav­our’s maiden voy­age in 1992. It took three men to grab the satel­lite with their gloved hands in per­haps the most dra­matic shut­tle mis­sion of all time. An at­tached rocket mo­tor ended up pro­pel­ling the satel­lite from a low al­ti­tude to its proper or­bit.

Northrop Grum­man en­vi­sions satel­lite re­fu­el­ing and other ro­botic re­pairs in an­other five to 10 years. In the mean­time, a se­cond res­cue satel­lite will be launched later this year.

The As­so­ci­ated Press Health and Sci­ence De­part­ment re­ceives sup­port from the Howard Hughes Med­i­cal In­sti­tute’s De­part­ment of Sci­ence Ed­u­ca­tion. The AP is solely re­spon­si­ble for all con­tent.

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