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Here’s how robots could repair or dispose of broken satellites in orbit

Getting a tune-up in low Earth orbit

These days, building and launching your own satellite means creating a sophisticated piece of technology — and then flinging it into space where you’ll never see it again. That means if anything breaks on the satellite, there’s not much you can do to fix it.

“Once you launch a mission, as soon as it leaves the pad, it’s never going to be touched again by human or robotic hands,” Jonathan Goff, president and CEO of Altius Space Machines, tells The Verge. “Which means that if anything goes wrong and you can’t fix it with a software update, you’re out of luck. There’s not much you can do.”

An emerging industry within the space community is trying to make launching a satellite a little less petrifying for operators. Known as satellite servicing, the business revolves around creating bots that can meet up with broken satellites in orbit to repair them, refuel them, or place them in orbits where they can last for many more years. These bots can also be used as garbage disposal units. They can nudge dead satellites closer to Earth where they get swallowed up by our planet’s atmosphere and meet a fiery end. Our latest Verge Science video explores what technologies are needed for satellite servicing and how it will work.

Such a service is enticing to satellite operators because a dead satellite comes with some severe consequences. First, it’s bad for a company’s bottom line. In early 2019, for instance, Maxar’s multimillion-dollar WorldView-4 imaging satellite suffered an instrument failure while in orbit, and the satellite could no longer point itself properly. The loss was huge for the company. WorldView-4 had provided $85 million in revenue for the company in 2018, and the satellite was insured for a whopping $183 million. Plus, it just wasn’t a good look.

“Its reputation; your shareholders might be nervous that this one satellite failed, what about the other ones that are in orbit?” Charity Weeden, vice president of global space policy at Astroscale, tells The Verge. “So there’s this nervousness that goes on for your company if something breaks in orbit. Insurance providers, they’ll start to wonder, ‘What’s going on here? Will we need to pick up the tab?’”

But above all, broken satellites can become dangerous. If you can no longer operate your satellite, it instantly becomes space junk zooming around Earth at upwards of 17,000 miles per hour. And that’s bad for everyone else. “The scariest thing is, dead satellites can’t dodge,” says Goff. “So eventually, if you get enough debris up there, the odds of a dead satellite hitting another dead satellite increases.” That prospect becomes even scarier considering that multiple companies — including SpaceX, OneWeb, and Amazon — are proposing to build massive constellations of satellites to beam internet down to Earth.

The era of satellite servicing is very much in the beginning stages, but this year, a handful of demonstration missions will take off to prove out the technology. If all goes well, satellites could one day get a tune-up when they reach orbit, helping to make the space environment a cleaner, more sustainable place.