6 mins read 10 Mar 2022

Optus to extend satellite life utilising new robotic life extension pod

Optus plans to extend the life of its D3 geostationary satellite by upto 6 years using the SpaceLogistics Mission Robotic Vehicle to deploy a Mission Extension Pod.

The Mission Robotic Vehicle will deliver the extension pod, allowing the life of the D3 communications satellite to be extended by up to six years. The mission extension pod will be deployed in 2024. Credit: Optus.

Telecommunications company and satellite owner / operator, Optus have announced they will be partnering with Northrop Grumman owned SpaceLogistics to extend the mission life of their D3 geostationary satellite. Optus will be the first commercial geostationary operator to utilise SpaceLogistics Mission Robotic Vehicle (MRV) and Mission Extension Pod (MEP). The MEP will provide orbit control to the satellite, augmenting the existing propulsion system giving the satellite up to six years of life extension. 

The MRV and three MEPs will be launched in 2024 onboard a SpaceX launch vehicle, with the spacecraft separately conducting orbit raising to Geostationary orbit with the MRV collecting an MEP before installing it onto the Optus satellite.

“Our contracts with Optus and SpaceX are tangible evidence of our momentum and commitment to deliver our second-generation services to the satellite industry,” said Vice President of Business Development for SpaceLogistics Joseph Anderson. “We are thrilled to have Optus as our premier MEP customer as we continue pioneering the future of space and expanding the realm of what is possible with on-orbit servicing and sustainment.”

Spacecraft usually run out of fuel before they stop working leaving many, otherwise operational satellites, unable to continue their mission. This not only means that a usable satellite is wasted, but requires a costly replacement. Additionally, this adds to the growing concern and very real issue of space junk occupying important orbits in space that can be shared and utilised by others, as many nations around the world start to integrate market verticals with space services. This is why the idea of being able to refuel or add another means of maintaining orbit is appealing to many satellite operators. 

“What you find is a spacecraft's life is basically driven by the amount of fuel it has and how well you fly that spacecraft. The spacecraft’s electronics could be fine, it's just that you haven't got enough fuel to fly it. So, in the case of the D3 satellite, its electronics are fine. There's nothing wrong with it. Which is fundamentally a fuel tank that's attached to the spacecraft. To extend the life by an additional six or seven years,” said Optus’ Head of Satellite and Space Systems, Nick Leake.  

Extending the life of Geostationary Spacecraft

The MEP being deployed from the MRV. Credit: Optus.

In 2019 SpaceLogistics launched the Mission Extension Vehicle -1 (MEV-1) which docked with communication satellite Intelsat IS-901 in February 2020. The satellite, which was fully operational, but running low on fuel, was given a five-year life extension after the historic docking, which was the first of its kind. The MEV-1 will also provide the fuel to move the satellite into a graveyard orbit once it is decommissioned. 

A second MEV was launched in 2020 to provide similar services to Intelsat IS-1002, docking with the satellite in April 2021. Since these launches, SpaceLogistics have developed the MRV, which with the addition of a robotic arm will install mission extension pods (MEP), which are smaller, less expensive versions of the MEV, onto satellites requiring life extension. The MRV can carry and install a number of these MEPs onto different satellites. The arms of the MRV, which were developed by the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) can inspect, repair and augment satellites.

Northrop Grumman built Optus’ D series spacecraft so they know the platform well.   

“All their ground simulation and all their testing has actually been on our spacecraft,” said Leake.

According to Optus, the MEP will be a small Optus-owned, Optus-controlled propulsion augmentation vehicle that can provide more than six years of life extension for a typical 2,000 kg satellite in geostationary orbit. Geostationary Orbit (GEO) is 37,785km above the Earth’s Equator and is the orbit at which a satellite's orbital period is equal to the Earth's rotational period, meaning the satellite stays in the same place above the Earth. 

“We will be the first in the world to utilise this capability,” added Leake.

The MEP will attach itself to the D3 using an existing opening used when the satellite was launched utilising an attachment similar to an anchor bolt. Once attached it will be able to support continued flight operations for the D3, extending its life. The MEP is powered by a state of the art electric propulsion system and whilst it cannot correct the altitude of a spacecraft it can support its positioning in space, thereby extending its life.

Optus in Australia

The SATCAT mobile communications base station has been deployed to flood damaged areas to provide satellite based network coverage. Credit: Optus.

Optus currently owns and operates 5 spacecraft, the D series which includes the D3, as well as the D1 and D2, the dual-use C1 and the Ku band Optus-10. In 2020 Optus announced they would be replacing the D1 and D2 with the Optus 11. The new fully reconfigurable telecommunications satellite will be designed and manufactured by Airbus and will be based upon their OneSat product.   

According to Leake, the satellite will be fully configurable in space, meaning that the spacecraft can change its mission profile whilst in orbit, including adjusting its coverage area, capacity and frequency. The Airbus OneSat is a software-defined spacecraft and will utilise a phased array system to meet evolving mission requirements. 

Combined with the Optus 11, which will be the Asia-Pacific region’s first software-defined high throughput satellite (HTS), the extension of Optus’ D3 satellite into the 2030s will enable Optus to provide continuity of service to its existing customer base as well as increased capacity, coverage, performance and flexibility.

“Optus’ partnership with SpaceLogistics will leverage their cutting edge MRV & MEP capability to increase the life of Optus’ D3 satellite. This innovative move along with the future launch of Optus 11 will benefit our customers,” said Ben White, Managing Director, Wholesale, Satellite and Strategy at Optus.

The Optus satellites provide a range of services from their Geostationary location of 156 degrees East Longitude, including pay-TV services, direct to home ABC and SBS coverage and voice/data services. 

Optus has also been using its SATCAT to support the recent flood zones, the “Sat on wheels” provided temporary mobile coverage to areas where mobile coverage was disabled. The SATCAT, which uses a satellite link to connect areas to the ground-based network, was deployed to Lismore, Ballina and Nimbin until the network was back up and running.

“It's a mobile base station that's fed by satellite connectivity,” said Leake of the SATCAT.

In 2020 the federal government awarded a number of companies, including Optus, grants to develop these rapidly deployable emergency communications systems for disasters such as the recent floods. 

Optus is also looking to call upon its space heritage as part of its bid for the JP9102 defence satellite communications project and has partnered with Raytheon, Thales and Mitsubishi Electric to form team AUSSAT.