When communication satellites or other orbiting spacecrafts run out of fuel, their destiny is marked. They are either de-orbited to destruct in the atmosphere, or they are positioned in a parking orbits, or, the worst fate, they are left in the outer space as dangerous space junk. The most of the times, they are still functioning.
This means a huge loss for the companies which sent them in orbit and the need for a real solution to this waste represents a huge commercial opportunity. For this reason Vivisat, a young spacecraft company, in partnership with ATK (an historical company that built solid rocket motors for NASA), is building a droid that will serve as repair droid and orbital gas station for vehicles which need to be fixed or refueled.
This droid will be called MEV (Mission Extension Vehicle) and, as the name suggests, its job will be to dock with commercial satelites to extend their life spawn. Its support could extend the operativity of the vehicles up to 10 years with an average of 3 to 5 years. With future improvements, the droid could also reposition spacecraft in new orbits.
I actually believe that this system is extremely forward-thinking and economically sustainable. Not only it permits to create a new space business which will bring future improvements but also help out resolving the problem of space debris (including all the rocket stages and the dead satellites which risk to collide with working ones). Furthermore, It will allow the deployment of more funds in research (not thinking about commercial satellites) and an important improvement in the space industry.
The company hasn’t announced yet the launch of its fleet (initially composed of 2 MEV, with other 8 planned in the further future) but the chief operating office Brian McGuirk, during SATCON 2012 Satellite & Content Delivery Conference & Expo, said that they are having a lot of conversations with potential customers.
We just wait and see if this business will work, hoping that it will also start a more important conversation about space junk and a motivation to create vehicles with long lasting lives.