Northrop Grumman subsidiary SpaceLogistics has selected SpaceX to launch its first Mission Robotic Vehicle (MRV) – better described as the company’s “next-generation satellite-servicing” spacecraft.
As far as SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket is concerned, MRV-1 is just another geostationary satellite for it to deliver to a transfer orbit around 35,800 kilometers (~22,200 mi) above Earth’s surface as early as “spring 2024.” As of now, SpaceX Falcon rockets have launched more than 35 satellites to geostationary transfer orbits (GTO) and have at least 18 more geostationary launch contracts on its manifest – 19 including MRV-1. MRV-1 is no ordinary geostationary communications satellite, however.
MRV isn’t a communications satellite at all, in fact. Instead, designed to be the second generation of Northrop Grumman’s satellite life-extension spacecraft, MRV aims to build upon the successes of the company’s first two Mission Extension Vehicles (MEVs). The first (MEV-1) became the first spacecraft in history to dock with another spacecraft in geostationary orbit (GEO) in February 2020. The second, MEV-2, successfully launched and docked with a different geostationary communications satellite in 2021. Both MEVs did exactly what they were supposed to, effectively giving their host satellites – Intelsat 10-02 and 901, both more than 15 years old – at least five more years of operational life.
While SpaceLogistics’ accomplishments are thus extremely impressive, the general MEV concept and parts of its execution have some flaws. First, the ‘service’ offered appears to be extremely expensive, costing Intelsat – the first and only customer, thus far – at least $13 million per year for the five years MEV-1 will be servicing Intelsat-901. No other MEV contracts have been confirmed, which is not a major surprise. Assuming zero upfront costs for prospective customers, $65 million for an extra five years of operations represents a substantial fraction of the price of some simpler replacement satellites, many of which are now designed to operate for at least 15 years.
Put simply, at the secretive price point SpaceLogistics is offering, MEVs are a mostly ambiguous financial proposition for the geostationary satellite communications industry, which tends to operate on razor-thin margins. Though SpaceLogistics hasn’t said as much, MRV seems to be a response to the issue of affordability. Instead of building one large, expensive MEV that can only service a single GEO satellite, MRV aims to operate more like a multipurpose space tug.
To complement MRV, Northrop Grumman is also developing Mission Extension Pods (MEPs) – smaller spacecraft designed to still add at least 5-6 years of life to an aging GEO satellite. MRVs – each about 3 tons (~7000 lb) will theoretically be able to carry several MEPs (400 kg/900 lb apiece) into geostationary orbit and install the pods on several different satellites. Additionally, it appears that SpaceLogistics will sell the pods outright, presumably precluding the need for expensive recurring service contracts like those Intelsat signed for MEV life extension.
According to Northrop Grumman, MEPs will actually propel themselves into GEO before being recaptured and installed by MRV – requiring two rendezvous and docking maneuvers per satellite instead of one. It’s entirely unclear why that added complexity is preferable over the obvious alternative, in which MRV would launch with a number of MEPs, carry them to GEO, and install them when needed.
Nonetheless, assuming Northrop Grumman plans to offer MEP life-extension pods for less than it charged for MEVs, it’s not hard to imagine the service becoming a no-brainer for communications providers with satellites that are close to running out of propellant. If the cost of several extra years of operational life is lower than the cost of an equivalent fraction of the lifespan of a new replacement satellite, it’s difficult to imagine how satellite operators could afford not to take advantage of life extension.
Northrop Grumman says it’s already sold one MEP – to launch with MRV-1 on Falcon 9 – to Australian telecom provider Optus and has a full manifest for MEPs “through mid-2026.”