Mission Extension Vehicle Headed for Space

Mission Extension Vehicle refuels satellite. (Credit: Orbital ATK)

WASHINGTON, DC (NASA PR) — A first-of-its-kind spacecraft to extend another satellite’s life will be launched into orbit soon thanks in part to a partnership between Northrop Grumman and NASA. The spacecraft is called the Mission Extension Vehicle, or MEV, and its primary purpose is to extend the life of commercial satellites that are currently in a geostationary orbit around Earth.

The spacecraft was developed by Northrop Grumman for its wholly owned subsidiary Space Logistics LLC, with some technical assistance from NASA through a no-funds exchanged NASA partnership called Collaborations for Commercial Space Capabilities.

“NASA is helping private industry advance commercial space capabilities that could benefit the government and other customers through these partnerships,” said Phil McAlister, director of the commercial spaceflight division at NASA Headquarters. “Northrop Grumman did all the heavy lifting, but I am pleased that NASA was able to use its vast experience to help Northrop Grumman develop its satellite servicing capabilities. NASA’s assistance were in several technical areas including rendezvous and proximity operations, management of electro static discharges between vehicles, robotics operator training, improving electric propulsion development and more.”

A satellite launched into space can only bring so much fuel with it, and many times the fuel runs out before the satellite’s components stop functioning. This is where the MEV comes in. It is designed to locate and connect to a satellite running low on fuel, and provide the attitude control and orbit maintenance.

The MEV can dock with about 80% of satellites currently in a geostationary orbit, even if the satellite was not designed to be serviced, and can operate for about 15 years. That means the spacecraft could attach to one satellite for a few years, undock and then help out other satellites in need. 

The first MEV, called MEV-1, will rendezvous and dock with an Intelsat satellite, and it will provide services to extend the life of the satellite for five years. A second MEV, called MEV-2, is targeted to launch in 2020 to do the same for another Intelsat satellite. Once the MEV spacecraft complete their support of Intelsat, both MEV spacecraft will undock and have about 10 years’ worth of fuel remaining.

“The MEV is just the first stepping stone in our roadmap for delivering the future of space. We are actively developing our next-generation satellite servicing vehicles and in-space assembly and manufacturing technologies,” said Steve Krein, vice president, civil and commercial satellites at Northrop Grumman. “Working with NASA for access to facilities, prototype development and knowledge transfer has aided in our progress.”

The MEV is scheduled to launch in October on a Russian Proton rocket from Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. The spacecraft will rendezvous and dock with its first client satellite about three months later.

“The MEV project is exactly what we envisioned in our Collaboration for Commercial Space Capabilities agreements. Once this capability has been demonstrated on MEV-1, NASA has the option of acquiring such a service in the future through a straightforward commercial acquisition instead of having to develop the capability ourselves at taxpayer expense.  It is big win for Northrop Grumman, NASA and the nation,” McAlister said. “Through these Space Act Agreements, NASA has another opportunity to advance entrepreneurial efforts by facilitating access to the agency’s resources including technical expertise, assessments, lessons learned, technologies, and data.” 

NASA is developing other in-orbit satellite servicing and manufacturing technologies, including those needed to refuel a satellite in low-Earth orbit. Different servicing techniques offer distinct ways to make government and commercial assets in various orbits more resilient.

NASA also has Collaborations for Commercial Space Capabilities agreements with United Launch Alliance for space transportation development, SpaceX for deep space system development and with Final Frontier Design for spacesuit development.