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ESA moves ahead with In-Orbit Servicing missions

Artist impression of Telespazio’s START-€ servicing spacecraft (gold, left) attached to a satellite (white, right) orbiting Earth. Telespazio works together with Thales Alenia Space, together forming the Space Alliance. Credit: Telespazio

London, 21 July 2023.- ESA has conducted extensive work on In-Orbit Servicing (IOS), as part of its Clean Space initiative for the removal and prevention of space debris. ESA Preparation invited industry partners to outline their vision of Europe’s first IOS mission, which could be launched as early as 2028. 

IOS to extend the life or functionalities of spacecraft already in orbit can be done by performing maintenance, adjusting a spacecraft’s orbit, changing the direction, providing more fuel, or upgrading the instruments. 

Astroscale, ClearSpace, D-Orbit and Telespazio (collaborating with Thales Alenia Space) were given funding to mature their ideas, and their results were presented in preparation for the 2022 ESA Council at Ministerial level. 

The four selected companies investigated the opportunities for IOS operations for satellites in low-Earth orbit (LEO) and geostationary orbit (GEO). LEO hosts satellites such as the Hubble Space Telescope, the Copernicus Sentinel Earth observation satellites, and the International Space Station. GEO hosts Europe’s series of Meteosat weather satellites, and satellites used for telecommunications. 

One clear outcome from the four studies is that the telecommunications industry is keen for life extension services to be up and running as soon as possible. Particularly in orbital maintenance where the spacecraft needs to stay where it is and change the orbit if it has drifted over time. 

Following these four studies funded by ESA Preparation, ESA’s Space Safety programme has decided to move forward with two of the proposed missions. The programme envisions that IOS operations will continue to expand, both in number of missions and their capabilities. European industry has the ambition to make IOS common procedure by the early to mid-2030s.

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