Among the hundreds of existing satellites used for telecommunications, more than 80 will stop working by 2011. This pushed a U.K.-based company, Orbital Recovery Corporation to develop a ion-propelled spacecraft which could extend the operational lifetime of these satellites by up to a decade. In this article, SPACE.com says that the first trials of the ConeXpress Orbital Life Extension Vehicle are expected by 2007. But the company faces a serious challenge. Will it be cheaper to extend a current satellite life than to launch a brand new satellite with state-of-the-art design?
Here are the goals of Orbital Recovery Corporation.
"This is an opportunity to open an untapped market in satellites," explained Phil Braden, CEO of the London-based aerospace firm Orbital Recovery, Ltd., which is developing the new spacecraft. "There is an economic pressure on [telecommunications] satellite providers to make the most of their satellite assets."
Orbital Recovery's vehicle, dubbed ConeXpress Orbital Life Extension Vehicle, is an ion-propelled spacecraft designed to fit into what until now has been empty space aboard an Ariane 5 rocket. The space tug, which is expected to conduct its first service call in 2007, is aimed at the telecommunication satellite industry, which depends on spacecraft in geosynchronous orbits to provide global television, telephone and online services among others.
How will this work?
ConeXpress adopts a slow and steady approach to satellite service calls by using an ion engine to reach ailing spacecraft. The engine uses electricity from tug's solar panels to charge xenon gas, then spits ionized particles through a nozzle to provide thrust.
Once the space tug arrives at a satellite it uses a docking probe to attach itself to the kick motor of the target craft, then it fulfills all the spacecraft's navigation and propulsion needs. Altogether, ConeXpress should be able to increase a single satellite's operational lifetime by up to a decade.
Below are two illustrations extracted from the ConeXpress in images page, which states explicitly that these "images are Orbital Recovery Systems copyrighted material, and no copyright license is granted to the user, either express or implied, other than the right to reproduce the images for non-commercial, personal use only." So I might have to pull these images off if the company wants it.
||Here is a rendering of the ConeXpress Orbital Life Extension Vehicle (CX OLEV) approaching an orbiting satellite Credit and copyright: Orbital Recovery Corporation).|
||And here is an illustration showing the ConeXpress docked with a telecommunications satellite (Credit and copyright: Orbital Recovery Corporation).|
The ConeXpress spacecraft is based on proven technology, such as ion engines and docking hardware and software. But what about the costs?
[One of the] the primary challenges facing Orbital Recovery is the need to convince satellite providers that an orbital lift by ConeXpress is more useful and cost effective than launching new spacecraft.
nica Morgan, a spokeswoman for the Princeton, New Jersey-based telecommunications company SES AMERICOM, said that Orbital Recovery would also have to compete with technological advances in satellite systems that could make spacecraft life extension missions unwarranted if more advanced versions are available for launch.
If the company proves to be successful, what will be next?
Currently, ConeXpress is designed to be a tugboat for spacecraft that lack only the fuel to keep them going. A satellite provider, for example, would order a space tug lift before their craft ran out of propellant, and the orbital tow truck could latch on in time to keep its target craft running smoothly.
While pre-ordered ConeXpress flights are expected to be the norm, the space tugs could also be lofted into space on a more regular basis and serve as stand-by spacecraft ready to tow a satellite in distress at short notice.
Sources: Tariq Malik, SPACE.com, June 2, 2004; Orbital Recovery Corporation website