Israeli Startup Hopes to Stop Satellites From Getting Lost in Space

Micro-satellites will tow errant ones back into orbit and escort dying ones to their final resting orbit.

Inbal Orpaz
Inbal Orpaz
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An image of a micro-satellite.
An image of a micro-satellite. Credit: Effective Space Solutions
Inbal Orpaz
Inbal Orpaz

In August, the European Space Agency launched two Galileo satellites from French Guinea into the wrong orbit. Tsk tsk.

The two therefore won’t be joining the European GPS navigation network, which currently consists of four satellites.

The Europeans have high hopes of their satellite program, which they hope will have 30 of the machines orbiting our planet by the year 2020 at a cost of billions of euros, so right now they’re losing hair over what went wrong. Meanwhile, one Israeli startup believes that its product, assuming successful development, can reverse mishaps like getting lost in space and generally save the industry billions of dollars a year.

Effective Space Solutions’s micro-satellite is being designed to extend the lifespan of telecom satellites, and tow them back into orbit when they go astray, as happens.

Today, communications satellites last no more than 12 to 15 years. The company believes it can extend that lifetime by another year. Not impressed? To the company operating the satellite, it could mean tens of millions of dollars more in revenues.

Boldly piling up paperwork

Effective Space Solutions was founded by Arie Halsband, who ran Israel Aerospace Industries’ space division from 2006 to 2011, after decades at various space-related functions in Israel’s defense industry.

At the tender age of more than 60, Halsband had the epiphany that innovation in outer space wouldn’t come from big, slow companies. It would take a nimble startup serving the commercial market, not a monster serving the military establishment.

Going boldly where no man has gone before doesn’t have to take mountains of paperwork that weighs more than a satellite, he quips.

The relatively hoary entrepreneur tapped the Singulariteam fund for a million dollars and raised another million and a half from the Israeli space agency. The field he chose: micro-satellites.

Micro-satellites piggyback on bigger launches into space, which by definition reduces their cost of launch. “They can do a great deal of work with very little fuel,” says Halsband. They can do the job with one satellite and then zip over to another needing succor in space.

We hardly knew ye

Telecommunications satellites typically last from 12 to 15 years. They float above the Earth at a fixed point, advancing in synchronicity with the planet’s rotation.

According to UN regulations, when satellites reach the end of their lifetime, they must go to the “satellite graveyard” – a defined orbit zone hundreds of kilometers farther out in space than regular orbits, where the decommissioned satellite can’t pose a danger.

The journey to the so-called “junk orbit” takes a week but uses enough fuel to have lasted the satellite six to nine months. During the trip, assuming the satellite is still in working condition, it can continue carrying out its mission.

The satellites are programmed to set out for the graveyard orbit when they have just enough fuel left to get there.

Effective Space Solutions wants to give the satellites up to nine months more lifetime by letting them use up their fuel. Then its satellite-tow truck would show up and drag the thing to the cemetery, Halsband explains.

So how does it work? The Effective Space robotic satellite is controlled remotely by humans on the ground. It has special sensors that can identify a communications satellite from afar.

The robot satellite approaches the communications satellite gradually, initially within 4 km, then creeping up to within a few hundred feet. The robot satellite, which weighs 250 kilos at launch (or about a tenth of most telecom satellites), has a docking mechanism, allowing it to connect to the satellite communications. It also has robotic arms to grab onto the target satellite.

Telecommunications satellite comprise 75% of the civilian satellite market, which turns over $100 billion a year. Effective Space calculates that it can save them as much as $3.5 billion a year in income lost because perfectly functional satellites are using up their resources to travel to the graveyard.

Some 300 satellites are orbiting Earth, and about 20 end their life each year, says Halsband. The companies make some $65 million a year in revenues from each satellite, so it pays to extend their satellite’s lifetime by a year.

Effective Space.has finished planning its micro-satellites and proved their feasibility. The company is raising money to continue development and start manufacturing. Despite the extremely challenging nature of its development, which has to meet stringent regulatory standards, the startup has just 12 employees and has outsourced a lot of development. It will also be outsourcing production and hopes to see its first orbiting tow-truck in service by the last quarter of 2016 or start of 2017.

The company means for its orbiting offspring to zip between satellites, serving as many as 8 to 20. And then they too will die, after about four years. May their short memory be blessed.

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