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Northrop’s ‘life extension’ spacecraft heads to the rescue

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ORLANDO, Fla., Sept. 11 (UPI) — A second spacecraft designed by Northrop Grumman to extend the life of satellites in orbit is headed toward a rescue some 22,200 miles above Earth.

The spacecraft is part of Northrop’s new in-orbit services. Analysts and observers predict such services will grow into a multibillion-dollar market over the next 10 years.

Northrop is the first commercial service to enable private space companies to extend the life of large, expensive satellites past their life expectancy as designed.

“Satellite operators have few options when a satellite is aging, and they are all expensive,” said Joe Anderson, a vice president with Northrop subsidiary SpaceLogistics, based in Dulles, Va.

The company’s rescue satellite, Mission Extension Vehicle-2, or MEV-2, was launched Aug. 15 from the European Space Agency’s Guiana Space Centre in French Guiana, South America.

The launch began a seven-month journey to a rendezvous with a communication satellite, Intelsat 10-02. Sent aloft in 2004, the satellite provides service to customers of for Intelsat Corp., whose administrative center is in McLean, Va.

Once it clamps onto the Intelsat, the MEV will become a new engine for the satellite, which is running low on fuel. The Northrop spacecraft will keep the satellite in the proper orbit and pointed toward Earth, Anderson said.

The first MEV spacecraft, launched in October 2019, is operating successfully as a new, supplemental engine for another Intelsat satellite, Intelsat 901, which was launched in 2001, according to Northrop and Intelsat.

That satellite reached the end of its lifespan and had been moved to the so-called graveyard orbit, which is about 300 miles higher than any functional satellites.

The incentive to rescue such large communications satellites is their high cost — between $150 million and $300 million, Anderson said.

While he declined to reveal the cost of Northrop’s MEV units, Anderson said the company intends to sell in-orbit services at a price that is attractive to satellite companies.

Intelsat previously reported in filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission that it would pay about $13 million per year, or $65 million for five years, for MEV-1.

If a company can put off the cost to build and launch a new satellite for five years, it can invest that money in other projects, making the life-extension service a valuable route, Anderson said.

Northrop will own and operate the MEV craft through SpaceLogistics. After the five-year missions for Intelsat, the MEV units can extend their work or move to other missions, Anderson said.

The MEVs are powered by electric engines energized by solar panels to raise their own orbit and control the Intelsat satellites, along with hydrazine chemical propulsion to rendezvous with their target satellites, Anderson said.

The electric thrusters are considered more efficient for such orbital missions, but they take longer to reach high orbit than bigger chemical propulsion engines.

Despite the success of MEV missions, Northrop won’t build more similar satellites, but rather develop a new version with more capabilities. It will be known as a Mission Robotic Vehicle, Anderson said.

The MRV would carry several life extension “pods” — small electric engines that can be dispersed among multiple satellites per mission, Anderson said. Northrop believes that will boost the cost efficiency of each mission.

Northrop also will design the robotic mothership, the MRV, to inspect satellites and possibly conduct limited repairs, providing more value, he said.

Such expanded robotic spacecraft could be valuable to Intelsat, as well, said Jean-Luc Froeliger, vice president of its space systems engineering operations.

“We are definitely interested in the robotic vehicle under development, although nothing is signed yet,” Froeliger said. “We’re making revenue from the MEV life extension already, but in the long term, MEV doesn’t make sense financially.”

The robotic version, MRV, should be more fiscally attractive if it can extend the life of multiple Intelsat satellites for each launch, he said.

“We got the rebate of being the first customer to help get the program started,” Froeliger said. “I don’t think, long term, it makes good financial business for Northrop or for us to make more MEVs. If it was, we’d have signed up for 10 more.”

Extending the life of multiple satellites with one MRV could address Intelsat’s aging fleet of 51 operational satellites more efficiently, Froeliger added. That’s because it will carry multiple engines — or pods — that can be dispersed and attached to multiple Intelsat satellites per mission, not just one.

“Life extension of our satellites is just one more tool in our toolbox to handle our fleet,” he said.

Such life extension missions haven’t been available in the private sector before, said Dallas Kasaboski, an analyst with Northern Sky Research in Cambridge, Mass.

“Governments have repaired or repositioned spacecraft in space for decades, but these Northrop missions are the first truly commercial in-orbit missions of their kind,” Kasaboski said.

Spacecraft that extend the life of satellites are just one part of an emerging sector in commercial space known as in-orbit services, Kasaboski said.

The commercial market for such in-orbit services should generate about $3.1 billion over the next decade, based on an analysis his firm released in February.

Many other types of in-orbit services are expected in the coming years, he said.

Those services include “relocation, or repair, especially as governments grapple with the problem of space trash and thousands of new satellites being launched,” Kasaboski said.

Although growth is likely for all in-orbit services, life extension may remain only a small niche market for years, said Joel Sercel, a technology entrepreneur and founder of Trans Astronautica Corp., a startup based in the Los Angeles area.

“Life extension for satellites might make sense for large communication satellites, an exquisite spy satellite, or a billion-dollar space telescope, but it could be too expensive for smaller satellites,” Sercel said.

Out-of-this-world images from space

NASA Astronaut Chris Cassidy, serving as commander of the Expedition 63 mission aboard the International Space Station, took these photos of Hurricane Laura as it continued to strengthen in the Gulf of Mexico on August 25. Photo courtesy of NASA | License Photo

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NASA’s OSIRIS-REx touches down on asteroid Bennu to nab sample

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Oct. 20 (UPI) — NASA’s OSIRIS-REx touched down on asteroid Bennu on Tuesday evening in a mission to scoop a sample of rocks and dirt.

The spacecraft — the Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security, Regolith Explorer — made soft contact with the asteroid at 6:12 p.m. EDT.

The historic “touch and go” event featured animation displaying OSIRIS-REx’s sample collection activities in real time. It takes time for real images of the touchdown to travel back to the Earth, so they won’t be released to the public until Wednesday.

The craft executed a series of maneuvers over the course of several hours before making soft contact with the surface of the asteroid to collect regolith, or rocks and dirt.

“It will be four and a half hours of anxiousness,” Beth Buck, OSIRIS-REx mission operations manager at Lockheed Martin Space, said in a news conference ahead of the event.

Buck made a comparison to the descent of a spacecraft on Mars, when there is typically “seven minutes of terror.”

The goal is to learn more about the solar system’s history and help “planetary defense” engineers with missions to protect earth from rogue asteroids. Bennu is believed to be a window into the solar system’s past since it’s a pristine, carbon-rich body carrying building blocks of both planets and life.

At around 1:50 p.m. EDT, the spacecraft left orbit around the asteroid before executing a series of burns to position itself over a sampling area nicknamed Nightingale.

Once in position, the craft began its approach to the asteroid at 5:50 p.m. EDT. It then spent about 15 seconds attempting to collect the regolith sample before backing away again.

The area, which is 52 feet in diameter, will make for a more demanding landing than expected, Kenneth Getzandanner, OSIRIS-REx flight dynamics manager at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland, said in the news conference.

The original mission called for a landing “zone” about 150% larger than Nightingale, at 82 feet, but that changed because Bennu was more rocky than expected.

The goal was to collect at least 1.7 ounces of fine-grained material, but the spacecraft can carry up to 4.4 pounds, Heather Enos, OSIRIS-REx deputy principal investigator at the University of Arizona said.

“I would love for that capsule to be completely full,” Enos said.

Though early images from the asteroid should hint at whether the mission succeeded, it will take engineers roughly 10 days to compare and analyze the mass before and after the maneuver to actually know how much dirt is inside the OSIRIS-REx.

If it failed, the spacecraft has enough fuel to attempt two more touch downs to collect material.

The spacecraft is expected to return to Earth, with the regolith sample from Bennu, in 2023.



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SpaceX scrubs Starlink launch until Thursday, if weather cooperates

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Oct. 21 (UPI) — Just three days after sending 60 more Starlink satellites into orbit, SpaceX is aiming to launch another batch of broadband satellites into space from Florida.

If the weather cooperates, Thursday’s launch will be SpaceX’s 15th Starlink mission.

Liftoff had been scheduled for 12:29 p.m. EDT Wednesday aboard a Falcon 9 rocket at Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, but controllers scrubbed the launch due to weather and rescheduled for 12:14 p.m. on Thursday.

With a launch Sunday, SpaceX increased the size of their Starlink constellation to nearly 800 satellites. The 15th mission will see another 60-odd satellites join the network.

“The goal of Starlink is to create a network that will help provide Internet services to those who are not yet connected, and to provide reliable and affordable Internet across the globe,” according to the Kennedy Space Center.

Weather for Wednesday’s planned launch had looked so-so and the Space Force’s 45th Weather Squadron predicted a 60 percent chance of favorable conditions.

“A mid-level inverted trough and associated easterly wave currently across the Bahamas will meander into the state over the next few days, bringing enhanced moisture, cloud cover, and instability with a higher coverage of showers and storms,” Space Force forecasters wrote.

They said Thursday’s forecast looks quite similar to Wednesday’s.

Earlier this month, SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk tweeted that Starlink’s constellation was big enough to begin beta-testing the Internet service system in both the United States and southern Canada.

SpaceX has already offered Starlink Internet services to emergency responders in wildfire-stricken areas of Washington State.

Washington’s Hoh tribe is also using the Internet service to provide their members online education and telehealth services.



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Chernobyl-level radiation harms bumblebee reproduction

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Oct. 21 (UPI) — Bees are more sensitive to radiation than scientists thought. Scientists found the reproduction rates of bumblebees declined significantly when exposed to Chernobyl-level radiation.

The research, published Wednesday in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, suggests radiation in Ukraine’s Chernobyl Exclusion Zone could impair pollination services, triggering wider ecological consequences than previously estimated.

Humans are not allowed to live in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, the disaster area more directly impacted by the 1986 nuclear accident, the worst in history. However, the destroyed nuclear reactors are surrounded by forests that are populated by robust populations of birds, bears, bison, lynx, moose, wolves and more.

Efforts to gauge the effects of radiation contamination on insects have yielded mixed results in the past. While some studies have suggested insects are relatively radiation-resistant, others have demonstrated significant impairment.

When researchers exposed bumblebees in the lab to radiation dose of 100 µGyh-1, an amount approximating exposure inside the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, reproduction rates among the bees dropped between 30 and 45 percent.

Researchers found a direct correlation between the size of the radiation dose and reproduction rate declines. Lower levels of radiation had a smaller effect, while larger doses yielded greater declines.

Scientists were surprised to find they were able to detect reproductive rate declines at very small levels of radiation exposure.

“Our research provides much needed understanding as to the effects of radiation in highly contaminated areas and this is the first research to underpin the international recommendation for the effects of radiation on bees,” lead study author Katherine Raines, environmental scientist at the University of Stirling in Scotland, said in a news release.



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