ESA, in partnership with various European industrial entities, has been engaged in exhaustive IOS research. Much of this effort falls under the auspices of the Clean Space initiative, which seeks to both prevent and remove space debris. As part of this project, ESA Preparation enlisted industry partners to formulate concepts for Europe's inaugural IOS mission, projected for a 2028 launch.
Several organizations, including Astroscale, ClearSpace, D-Orbit, and a Telespazio-Thales Alenia Space alliance, received funding to refine their proposals. These developments were unveiled during the lead-up to the 2022 ESA Council at Ministerial level.
Future satellites may embody a paradigm shift in design, potentially carrying less fuel and larger instruments. In-orbit assembly opens up the possibility for modular satellites that can be easily assembled and have individual components replaced. The idea of standardizing docking structures to facilitate the attachment of servicing spacecraft to various satellite types is already under discussion.
The commercial implications of IOS are profound, considering more than half of all satellites being launched are commercial. Ross, an ESA representative, emphasized that the necessity of establishing relationships with actual customers is non-negotiable. The various legal aspects arising from the integration of commercial entities into IOS missions, like accountability in the event of satellite collisions during servicing, are currently being discussed between ESA, companies keen on IOS mission involvement, and satellite-owning entities.
The unique position of ESA's Basic Activities Preparation element allowed it to support these mission assessment studies, including exploration of commercialization opportunities. ESA Discovery and Preparation officer Moritz Fontaine expressed how these initiatives demonstrate the Preparation programme's crucial role in transforming ideas into reality.
The four companies selected for the project explored IOS operational opportunities for satellites in both low-Earth orbit (LEO) and geostationary orbit (GEO). Notably, LEO hosts significant satellites such as the Hubble Space Telescope, Copernicus Sentinel Earth observation satellites, and the International Space Station, while GEO houses most of the satellites used for telecommunications, including Meteosat weather satellites.
A consistent finding across the four studies is the telecommunications industry's enthusiasm for implementing life extension services. Of particular interest is orbital maintenance, which ensures spacecraft remain in their designated locations and corrects any drift over time.
These orbit control operations, however, consume fuel. The proposals outline how a servicing spacecraft could attach to satellites that have exhausted their fuel and conduct the necessary orbit adjustments. The servicing spacecraft can remain attached for as long as necessary, then relocate the satellite to a 'graveyard orbit' before proceeding to the next satellite in need of servicing.
Interestingly, three of the four proposals originated from 'New Space' companies, newer entities known for different design and development approaches, typically featuring smaller teams and rapid iterations. Ross noted the value of examining these fresh perspectives and exploring potential collaborations.
After evaluating these four studies, ESA's Space Safety programme has greenlit two proposed missions. The programme anticipates a steady expansion of IOS operations in terms of both the number of missions and their capabilities. European industry aims to establish IOS as a standard procedure by the early to mid-2030s.
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