Monday, March 28, 2011

Gas Guzzlers


Guess what we'll all be talking about in 2015? That's right, the price the gasoline in space. It seems that MacDonald, Dettwiler & Associates of Canada have teamed with satellite provider giant Intelsat to master the art of refueling in orbit.

The Wall Street Journal (yes, that big pack of space lovers who never put private profits ahead of public risks, har har) reports that MDA and Intelsat have signed the first commercial contract to design remote control methods to refuel satellites in active orbit. (Note: Non-subscribers maybe be blocked from links at

Orbital Debris
Of course, they jump ahead to how it could "fundamentally reshape the economics of the global satellite industry" – but let's make sure we can pull it off first, right? Because some of us are still bitterly awaiting our hovercars.

The process has allegedly been successful at airplane altitudes, and if successful in micro-gravity, could help our growing space junk problem and extend the life of many thousands of orbiting satellites that would otherwise undergo various inevitable types of technological obsolescence: merely floating dead indefinitely or burning up in the atmosphere as their orbits degrade closer to Earth.

Gasoline Sign
MDA plans to launch Space Infrastructure Servicing (SIS) vehicles by 2015, each with enough fuel to service about 12 satellites and perhaps also even complete simple robotic repairs, saving billions of dollars, reducing the need for so many rockets to launch new satellites, and also ultimately reducing the amount of floating hardware. SIS stations might also steer existing dead satellites into flame out zones, helping to clean up orbital debris that makes manned space flight increasingly dangerous.

Given what fossil fuels cost on earth right now, I don’t even want to know what they will cost in space by 2015, but ones hopes there will be a happy ending in terms of the long-term payoff. And the bill? Picked up 100% by the commercial sector in terms of development and testing.

DVice has a great video released by MDA, describing the toolset: