COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — The Defense Department is showing interest in using Orbital ATK's new in-orbit satellite life extension vehicle to service military in addition to commercial spacecraft, a company executive said Tuesday.
"I think they are very interested in the service, but in the US government to go from interest to funding to contract tends to take time," said Tom Wilson, president of the newly formed Space Logistics, a wholly owned subsidiary of Orbital ATK.
Orbital ATK announced Intelsat, a communications satellite services provider, as the first customer for its new satellite life extension service on Tuesday during the Space Foundation’s annual National Space Symposium. Under the agreement, Orbital ATK will manufacture, test and launch the first commercial servicing vehicle called Mission Extension Vehicle-1 (MEV-1), a 2,000 kilogram system that will enable satellite operators to perform critical maintenance work in space.
MEV-1 can dock with a spacecraft up to 3,500 to 4,000 kilograms, allowing it to accommodate "just about everything that's up there today," Wilson said. The vehicle is "absolutely" capable of servicing large DoD satellites, but it will take the government time to figure out how to contract for the service, he said.
Orbital ATK has talked with a few potential government clients about the service and could reach an agreement with one of these customers as early as 2020, Wilson said.
However, the government wants to see how the service performs in the commercial marketplace before making a commitment, he stressed.
"From a government perspective, they would really like to see us kick this off in the commercial market [first] and establish the service," Wilson said, adding that one potential customer is NASA's weather satellite programs.
Controlled by the Orbital ATK's satellite operations team, the MEV-1 uses a docking system that attaches to existing features on a customer's satellite, according to company executives. The vehicle has a 15-year design life, and will be able to perform numerous missions during its lifespan.
The MEV-1 is expected to launch in late 2018 for in-orbit testing and demonstration. The vehicle will begin its mission extension service for Intelsat in 2019, according to Orbital ATK.
But MEV-1 is just the beginning, said Orbital ATK CEO David Thompson on Tuesday. Over the next five years, the company envisions building and deploying a small fleet of about five commercial servicing vehicles to provide additional in-orbit services such as refueling, robotic repair of damaged satellites, and even assembly of multiple structures and advanced payloads, he said.
"We believe that there is a real market for space logistics," Wilson said Tuesday during a news briefing at the Space Symposium. "Our innovative solutions that we've developed over the past decade will extend the lives of useful satellites, enable customers to protect their franchises and drive improved asset value."