Science News

Satellite Rescue

Sat, 19th May 2012

Dave Ansell

Part of the shows From PC to Plane - Making New Metals and Ancient Microbes, Brain Interfaces and Satellite Rescue

Satellites are extremely expensive pieces of kit, even without the cost of launching them.  A modern telecommunications satellite can cost billions of dollars. Unsurprisingly, their owners want them to keep functioning for as long as possible, however they have to maintain the right orbit to be useful, and as soon as they run out of fuel, their orbit will slowly start to change until they are useless. Satellites are solar powered and built to last, so that most satellites finish their lives perfectly serviceable, but just in the wrong place.

GPS satelliteA company called Vivisat is hoping to change this: they have designed a relatively small spacecraft called a Mission Extension Vehicle or MEV, which is powered by efficient ion thrusters. The idea is to fly the MEV up to the satellite, dock onto the motor which every geostationary satellite uses to get into circular orbit.  The MEV then takes charge of pointing the satellite and keeping it in position, allowing it to keep working for several extra years.

This is another example of space starting to be used in a more innovative way, which hopefully will lead to exciting things in the future.

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Excellent.
I think there should be more recycling of space stuff...  in space.

One of the issues with things like communication satellites is that technology is also changing.  So, a 10 year old satellite may not be worth investing a few million dollars to save (for its original purpose).  However, I believe there are a few (newer) satellites that are slowly drifting that could be put back into place. 

I presume that more will be done with robotics in the future.  Perhaps creating a robot that is able to perform upgrades on the satellites while in space.  Of course, there is always the risk of investing more in salvaging a satellite than it is worth, with a big part of the expense being the launch vehicle. CliffordK, Mon, 21st May 2012

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