Today, two commercial satellites have coupled to each other, thanks to an indi- vidual maneuver that can change the way we explore space. If the final phase of the mission is successful, it will become possible to collect "cosmic waste" – read, parts and devices in orbit, which are no longer being operated by any agency or company.
"This is the first time that a docking has been accomplished with a satellite that was not designed for that purpose," said Joe Anderson, vice president of Space Logistics, at a press conference. The company in question is part of Northrop Grumman and was responsible for monitoring the mission that ended with the first coupling between two commercial satellites.
After 19 years in space, the Intelsat 901 satellite was in the process of running out of fuel. If nothing was done to recover it, the ground team would lose control of the device. A couple of years ago, Intelsat decided to start a mission that consisted of sending a second satellite – the MEV-1 – to extend the 901's useful life for another five years. The machines intersected in October 2019 and, now that the connection has been established, it will be possible to control both satellites via MEV-1.
The success of this initiative is an important goal for the industry, which has been aiming to achieve something like this for several years. The repair of orbiting satellites can save several million companies in the sector and reduce the space waste that the industry generates as a result of its activity.
In the past, other missions have been launched to repair service satellites, but all of them have been manned. In this case, the satellite has been remotely recovered and, when it stops working, it must be dropped into an area of the Earth's atmosphere where, instead of floating for eternity, it can burn and fall to ashes.
Northrop Grumman will launch the MEV-2 soon. The satellite has a similar purpose.