International Launch Services (ILS) sent up a Proton rocket from the Baikonur Cosmodrome this morning with a payload containing the first commercial spacecraft designed to service and extend the life of satellites in orbit.
The 10:17 UTC launch saw the EUTELSAT 5 West B satellite and Mission Extension Vehicle-1 (MEV-1) leave the Earth on a Proton Breeze M launcher.
While the former is another Ku-band satellite aimed at French, Italian and Algerian broadcast markets, MEV-1 is an altogether different beast.
Weighing in at 2,326kg (5,127 pounds) and based on the GeoStar-3 bus, the MEV-1 is designed to dock with soon-to-be-stricken satellites and take over attitude and orbit control.
For this mission, MEV-1 is targeting Intelsat 901. The plan is to dock with the satellite with a view to extending the life of the spacecraft for another five years before shunting it to a graveyard orbit.
MEV-1 itself has a 15-year lifespan, and can dock and undock several times, affording the potential to service multiple satellites.
Supplied by Northrop Grumman subsidiary SpaceLogistics LLC, the MEV is estimated (PDF) to be compatible with 80 per cent of all geosynchronous satellites on orbit today, utilising a simple mechanical system to grapple a client satellite before taking over station-keeping duties. The spacecraft features a pair of electric propulsion modules as well as optical IR and laser-based rendezvous instruments. It also carries illumination.
Of course, while Northrop Grumman is keen to trumpet the spacecraft's "significant delta-V capability", orbital mechanics mean that multiple MEVs would likely be needed over time as customers decide that a rescue makes more economic sense than launching a new satellite.
Should all go well, MEV-1 will use its electric thrusters over the next three months to raise its orbit to match that of the Intelsat 901 satelllite, which will have been moved by controllers to the GEO graveyard orbit for the test.
Using the graveyard orbit makes a lot of sense for this first test, since if things go wrong and a collision occurs, the risk to functioning satellites from debris will be reduced.
After inspecting IS901, MEV-1 will approach from behind autonomously with a few holds along the way for ground controller verification. It will finally attach itself to the nozzle of IS901's own engine before moving the Intelsat satellite to a new location.
It's a gloriously simple solution to the problem of extending the life of existing satellites or simply for redeploying spacecraft to new locations. Rather than faff around with pesky refuelling mechanisms, the MEV-1 simply grapples its target and putters off to where the customer needs it.
At time of writing, the MEV-1 is being manoeuvred to its separation point by the Breeze M upper stage. At 15 hours and 36 minutes after lift-off, it is expected to be released into an orbit with an apogee of 65,000km and a perigee of 12,049 km with an inclination of 13.3 degrees. ®