In a historic first, one private satellite docks to another in orbit

On Tuesday, a spacecraft that was launched four months earlier docked with a communications satellite about 36,000km above the Earth. Northrop Grumman reported the historic docking on Wednesday, and the company heralded the mission as an “historic accomplishment” in the field of satellite servicing. Prior to this mission, no two commercial spacecraft had ever docked in orbit before.

Launched on a Proton rocket in October, the Mission Extension Vehicle-1 (MEV-1) has a fairly long history of development under various companies. Ultimately, it was brought to space by SpaceLogistics, a wholly owned subsidiary of Northrop Grumman. After the company’s rideshare launch in October, its MEV-1 spacecraft used electric-propulsion thrusters to raise its orbit 290km above geosynchronous orbit.

Meanwhile, a communications satellite launched in 2001 (Intelsat-901) was pulled from active service in December 2019 as it ran low on fuel. Operators commanded the satellite to move into a “graveyard orbit” above geostationary space. It is here that MEV-1 linked up with the communications satellite on Tuesday.

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