Kirby Iken explains the revolutionary new concept of `space tugs' and how they can be used to save or extend the lives of telecom satellites.

A unique `space tug' offered by Orbital Recovery Corporation (ORC) will provide a valuable life extension for aging telecommunications satellites circling the Earth, as well as a second chance for those spacecraft that have been stranded in incorrect orbits by their rocket launchers.

Orbital Recovery's Geosynch Spacecraft Life Extension System (SLES) will open new ways for satellite operators to manage their risks, and offers different approaches to insuring satellites during launch and while in orbit.

Limited lifespan
Modern telecommunications satellites are designed for a useful on-orbit life of 10-15 years. This limit is set by the total fuel load they can carry at launch - a constraint that results from the lift capability of commercial launch vehicles and the price charged per kilogram for the ride into space.

The costs associated with a telecoms satellite's procurement, launch, insurance and operation can exceed $250m - while such spacecraft typically generate revenues of more than $50m per year.

At the end of these satellites' useful lifetimes - which is decided when their on-board fuel load is nearly used up - the spacecraft are boosted into a disposal orbit where they drift as space junk. In the majority of these cases, the satellites' payloads (their onboard relay transponders and associated electronics) continue to function nominally at the time of their forced retirement.

Today, there are no viable means of prolonging the useful life of such telecommunications satellites, resulting in the wasteful loss of valuable assets every year.

This will change with the SLES, which is designed to easily mate with all telecommunications satellites now in space or on the drawing boards.

Design lifetime of the SLES is 12 years, and a typical life-extension mission with it docked to a mature telecommunications satellite will last 10 years.

In additional to the regular life-extension missions, ORC will be ready to use SLES for the rescue of satellites that have been stranded in incorrect orbits by their launchers. This is the most challenging application of the SLES, but an extremely interesting one because of the possibility to save a brand new satellite that otherwise would be written off before it generates any revenue.

Daring rescues
ORC first offered its SLES for such a rescue in 2002. The company proposed to save the ASTRA 1K satellite for Luxembourg's SES ASTRA after this massive spacecraft was left in a very low orbit after its Russian-built Proton launcher malfunctioned. ASTRA 1K was one of the largest telecom spacecraft ever built, and the SLES offered the opportunity to raise it from its 290km circular orbit to the desired 35,000km operational altitude for telecom satellites.

Discussions were initiated with the involved stakeholders for ASTRA 1K, and there was a significant interest in ORC's rescue scenario. In the end, however, SES ASTRA decided to send ASTRA 1K to a fiery death in the atmosphere over the Pacific Ocean only days after its launch.

As demonstrated by the SLES proposal for ASTRA 1K, the space rescue scenario opens up totally new opportunities in dealing with launch failures. Underwriters would have the possibility of starting revenue-generating telecoms service relatively quickly for the insured party - which is vastly cheaper than paying the insured value of a stranded satellite, and which eliminates the need to procure a replacement satellite (which takes about two or more years to build).

The SLES also creates interesting implications for the writing of launch insurance policies. With this `space tug', the risk during a satellite launch can now be subdivided into two parts: one relating to catastrophic failure (a rocket explosion that destroys the launcher and its satellite payload, for example); and the other for recoverable failures when the spacecraft can be saved in space by the SLES. The sum insured for part of the risk can be significantly reduced, giving satellite operators an opportunity to lower their insurance costs.

The SLES also will have an influence on in-orbit insurance. A telecommunications operator with an aging - but operational - satellite in orbit could use the SLES's life extension capability to turn this relay platform into a space-based spare. The cost of an SLES mission would be much lower than the price of procuring a new satellite as a spare, which is a common practice in the telecom industry.

With this redundancy in place, an operator could alter its insurance cover to reflect a one-satellite deductible on the policy - which might lower the annual premium per satellite from 2%-2.5% to as low as 1%. With sums insured on the order of $200m per satellite, it becomes easy to see that the savings of employing this new capability could easily outweigh the costs, especially when telecomms operators' fleets consist of numerous spacecraft. Even operators with small fleets could join with other operators to access a shared capability and reduce their insurance costs.

Down at the docks
In a typical mission, the SLES would be launched atop a European-built Ariane 5 rocket. It would then be guided to a rendezvous with the target telecommunications satellite, approaching it from below for docking.

The SLES will make its link-up using a proprietary docking system that connects at the telecommunication satellite's apogee kick motor. Apogee kick motors are used by nearly every telecommunications satellite for orbital boost and station positioning, and they provide a strong, easily accessible interface point for the SLES's linkup that is always within the satellite's center of gravity. In addition, apogee kick motors are not considered technologically sensitive equipment, eliminating any concerns about tech-transfer issues in preparing the SLES for its rendezvous in space with international satellites.

Control of the SLES, following its launch and during the initial free-flight phase, will be handled by ORC. Docking the SLES to its telecommunications satellite will be a joint effort with the telecommunications spacecraft operator. Once the docking and checkout have been completed, the control will be handed over to the satellite operator - with technical support and service provided by ORC throughout the operating lifetime.

The SLES is a relatively small spacecraft with the targeted mass at launch of 500kg-800kg. This will allow it to easily fit as a cost-efficient secondary on heavy-lift launchers, such as Arianespace's Ariane 5, or as a primary payload, such as on Russia's Dnepr or other relatively inexpensive rockets.

Only flight proven, off-the-shelf hardware is used in the SLES's production to keep costs down and ensure high reliability.

Design lifetime of the SLES is 12 years and a typical life-extension mission docked to the parent telecommunications satellite will last 10 years. A sufficient amount of propellant will be retained on-board the SLES to boost the parent telecoms satellite out of orbit at the mission's completion.

By Kirby Ikin
Kirby Ikin is Senior Vice President - Risk Management at Orbital Recovery Corporation.
Tug boats, not space ships


Kirby Iken explains the revolutionary new concept of `space tugs' and how they can be used to save or extend the lives of telecom satellites.

A unique `space tug' offered by Orbital Recovery Corporation (ORC) will provide a valuable life extension for aging telecommunications satellites circling the Earth, as well as a second chance for those spacecraft that have been stranded in incorrect orbits by their rocket launchers.

Orbital Recovery's Geosynch Spacecraft Life Extension System (SLES) will open new ways for satellite operators to manage their risks, and offers different approaches to insuring satellites during launch and while in orbit.

Limited lifespan
Modern telecommunications satellites are designed for a useful on-orbit life of 10-15 years. This limit is set by the total fuel load they can carry at launch - a constraint that results from the lift capability of commercial launch vehicles and the price charged per kilogram for the ride into space.

The costs associated with a telecoms satellite's procurement, launch, insurance and operation can exceed $250m - while such spacecraft typically generate revenues of more than $50m per year.

At the end of these satellites' useful lifetimes - which is decided when their on-board fuel load is nearly used up - the spacecraft are boosted into a disposal orbit where they drift as space junk. In the majority of these cases, the satellites' payloads (their onboard relay transponders and associated electronics) continue to function nominally at the time of their forced retirement.

Today, there are no viable means of prolonging the useful life of such telecommunications satellites, resulting in the wasteful loss of valuable assets every year.

This will change with the SLES, which is designed to easily mate with all telecommunications satellites now in space or on the drawing boards.

Design lifetime of the SLES is 12 years, and a typical life-extension mission with it docked to a mature telecommunications satellite will last 10 years.

In additional to the regular life-extension missions, ORC will be ready to use SLES for the rescue of satellites that have been stranded in incorrect orbits by their launchers. This is the most challenging application of the SLES, but an extremely interesting one because of the possibility to save a brand new satellite that otherwise would be written off before it generates any revenue.

Daring rescues
ORC first offered its SLES for such a rescue in 2002. The company proposed to save the ASTRA 1K satellite for Luxembourg's SES ASTRA after this massive spacecraft was left in a very low orbit after its Russian-built Proton launcher malfunctioned. ASTRA 1K was one of the largest telecom spacecraft ever built, and the SLES offered the opportunity to raise it from its 290km circular orbit to the desired 35,000km operational altitude for telecom satellites.

Discussions were initiated with the involved stakeholders for ASTRA 1K, and there was a significant interest in ORC's rescue scenario. In the end, however, SES ASTRA decided to send ASTRA 1K to a fiery death in the atmosphere over the Pacific Ocean only days after its launch.

As demonstrated by the SLES proposal for ASTRA 1K, the space rescue scenario opens up totally new opportunities in dealing with launch failures. Underwriters would have the possibility of starting revenue-generating telecoms service relatively quickly for the insured party - which is vastly cheaper than paying the insured value of a stranded satellite, and which eliminates the need to procure a replacement satellite (which takes about two or more years to build).

The SLES also creates interesting implications for the writing of launch insurance policies. With this `space tug', the risk during a satellite launch can now be subdivided into two parts: one relating to catastrophic failure (a rocket explosion that destroys the launcher and its satellite payload, for example); and the other for recoverable failures when the spacecraft can be saved in space by the SLES. The sum insured for part of the risk can be significantly reduced, giving satellite operators an opportunity to lower their insurance costs.

The SLES also will have an influence on in-orbit insurance. A telecommunications operator with an aging - but operational - satellite in orbit could use the SLES's life extension capability to turn this relay platform into a space-based spare. The cost of an SLES mission would be much lower than the price of procuring a new satellite as a spare, which is a common practice in the telecom industry.

With this redundancy in place, an operator could alter its insurance cover to reflect a one-satellite deductible on the policy - which might lower the annual premium per satellite from 2%-2.5% to as low as 1%. With sums insured on the order of $200m per satellite, it becomes easy to see that the savings of employing this new capability could easily outweigh the costs, especially when telecomms operators' fleets consist of numerous spacecraft. Even operators with small fleets could join with other operators to access a shared capability and reduce their insurance costs.

Down at the docks
In a typical mission, the SLES would be launched atop a European-built Ariane 5 rocket. It would then be guided to a rendezvous with the target telecommunications satellite, approaching it from below for docking.

The SLES will make its link-up using a proprietary docking system that connects at the telecommunication satellite's apogee kick motor. Apogee kick motors are used by nearly every telecommunications satellite for orbital boost and station positioning, and they provide a strong, easily accessible interface point for the SLES's linkup that is always within the satellite's center of gravity. In addition, apogee kick motors are not considered technologically sensitive equipment, eliminating any concerns about tech-transfer issues in preparing the SLES for its rendezvous in space with international satellites.

Control of the SLES, following its launch and during the initial free-flight phase, will be handled by ORC. Docking the SLES to its telecommunications satellite will be a joint effort with the telecommunications spacecraft operator. Once the docking and checkout have been completed, the control will be handed over to the satellite operator - with technical support and service provided by ORC throughout the operating lifetime.

The SLES is a relatively small spacecraft with the targeted mass at launch of 500kg-800kg. This will allow it to easily fit as a cost-efficient secondary on heavy-lift launchers, such as Arianespace's Ariane 5, or as a primary payload, such as on Russia's Dnepr or other relatively inexpensive rockets.

Only flight proven, off-the-shelf hardware is used in the SLES's production to keep costs down and ensure high reliability.

Design lifetime of the SLES is 12 years and a typical life-extension mission docked to the parent telecommunications satellite will last 10 years. A sufficient amount of propellant will be retained on-board the SLES to boost the parent telecoms satellite out of orbit at the mission's completion.

By Kirby Ikin
Kirby Ikin is Senior Vice President - Risk Management at Orbital Recovery Corporation.

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