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Telescopes and space missions

Space drones will give satellites a new lease of life

24 Jan 2018
Artist’s impression of a space drone
Docking manoeuvre: a space drone (right) guides a satellite

Satellites occupying valuable space in geostationary orbit will be given a new lease of life, thanks to a recent announcement by British aerospace company Effective Space. In 2020, the company will launch a fleet of space drones for an unspecified client, which will take over the manoeuvring of a satellite after it runs out of fuel. The technology they have developed could prove to be a crucial advance in satellite operations in the near future, and will likely ignite a hugely competitive market.

Situated some 36,000 km above the Earth’s equator, the Clarke belt (named after science fiction writer Arthur C Clarke) is home to a ring of around 600 of our most important satellites. These satellites are in geostationary orbit, meaning they never move relative to a single point on the Earth’s surface, allowing them to carry out operations ranging from weather forecasting to television broadcasting. However, space in the Clarke belt is running out. Daniel Campbell, managing director of Effective Space points out that many satellites are designed to operate for 15 years of service. After that, the spacecraft are no longer able to control their positions. Once the ability to manipulate orientation and position of a satellite has been lost, the satellite effectively becomes space junk that wastes a valuable Clarke belt position.

Nonintrusive docking

However, many of these satellites have communications hardware that still works perfectly well, and they could still be in use if only they could be re-positioned. Effective Space’s drones offer one of the first solutions to this problem. Campbell says that the firm’s nonintrusive docking mechanism allows the drones to attach to satellites that are not designed for docking. The relatively small 400 kg craft would attach to the interface rings of satellites, which originally attached them to the spacecraft that carried them into orbit. Once in position, the space drones would use their ion-propulsion systems to take over the manoeuvring of the satellite, either until its hardware malfunctions or until the company that operates it decides its mission has ended.

At the end of a satellite’s life, the drones would then steer it into a “graveyard orbit”, in which it would safely burn up in Earth’s atmosphere, freeing up precious Clarke belt space in the process. But the space drones would not suffer the same fate – they would detach from the doomed satellite and move on to their next mission. “We can have multiple docking and undocking sessions,” says Campbell. “We can move from one customer to another, extend the life for some years and then hop to the other mission.” Then, after undertaking several missions over their 15-year lifetimes, the space drones would retire, before themselves becoming un-manoeuvrable.

Competitive market

The market for life-extending drones is already competitive, with US company Orbital ATK recently announcing its own deal to use similar technology with two other geostationary satellites. However, Campbell hopes that the smaller size of Effective Space’s drones will give them a less costly competitive edge.

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