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An old satellite gets a new lease on life, thanks to the help of a servicing satellite

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Intelsat 901 is back in action

The Intelsat 901 satellite as seen by MEV-1 before docking.
Image: Northrop Grumman

An old communications satellite in orbit around Earth is back in service again after being nudged into new life-saving orbit by another satellite. Intelsat 901, which has been in space since 2001, is now providing telecommunications coverage over the Atlantic again after being moved to a new location in space by a servicer satellite, extending the vehicle’s mission by at least five years.

Intelsat 901’s new lease on life is all thanks to Northrop Grumman’s MEV-1 spacecraft. MEV-1 is the first mission of its kind to demonstrate what is known as satellite servicing — using one satellite to fix or aid another satellite that might be having trouble in orbit. Located 22,000 miles above Earth, Intelsat 901 is working just fine, but the satellite was running low on propellant, and ground operators would have been forced to retire the spacecraft. MEV-1 was tasked with rendezvousing with Intelsat 901 and latching on to the vehicle. That way, MEV-1 could act as a new set of engines for Intelsat 901, moving the old satellite into a new spot so that it could continue operating as designed.

MEV-1 launched in October and spent three months traveling to Intelsat 901, which had been placed in a “graveyard” orbit — where some inoperable satellites are placed when they run out of fuel. That way, they don’t interfere with any operational satellites that are still working. In February, the MEV-1 mission made history when the spacecraft successfully snagged Intelsat 901 with an onboard grappling device — marking the first time that two commercial satellites had ever docked in orbit. With the two satellites acting as one, MEV-1 then moved Intelsat 901 to its new location, and on April 2nd, Intelsat transitioned “30 of its commercial and government customers to the satellite,” a process that took about six hours.

“With a focus on providing the best customer experience in our industry, Intelsat is proud to have pioneered this innovative first with Northrop Grumman. We see increased demand for our connectivity services around the world, and preserving our customers’ experience using innovative technology such as MEV-1 is helping us meet that need,” Mike DeMarco, Intelsat’s chief services officer, said in a statement.

MEV-1 will stay attached to Intelsat 901 for at least five years before moving it back into the graveyard orbit. When that happens, MEV-1 will be a free agent, capable of helping out another aging satellite in need of space tow. Meanwhile, Intelsat is so pleased with the outcome of MEV-1 that the company has already contracted with Northrop Grumman for a second satellite servicing mission called MEV-2. That mission is supposed to launch later this year and will target the Intelsat 1002 satellite, which is also running low on propellant.