On-Orbit Servicing


By George D. Kyriakopoulos

Space debris remains an acute problem for space activities, with important implications for space security. Since 2018, the UN COPUOS Legal Subcommittee (LSC) has been discussing, in addition to mitigation, the issue of space debris remediation. On-orbit satellite servicing (OOS) could be a complementary option in this direction. Thus, if satellites would be inspected and repaired in orbit while the malfunctions identified, the satellites will not become part of the debris population.

However, OOS is not yet supported at the legal level, although, within the COPUOS LSC, some States have already identified the need for a relevant legal framework. Moreover, the need for innovative solutions to the debris issue is clearly provided for in Guideline D.2 of the COPUOS Long-term Sustainability Guidelines.

by Stephan Hobe

On-Orbit Servicing refers to activities of refueling or repairing space objects like, for example, space satellites while these space objects are in outer space.  Thereby one can differentiate in on-orbit servicing within manned and within un-manned missions. We have had for example such a mission in the Skylab program in 1973 or in the Saljut 7 program of 1995 and the reparation of the Hubble Space Telescope which was in orbit on mission between 1993 and 2009. Also space stations like Mir or the International Space Station (ISS) needed constant maintenance whilst being in outer space.  Within the context of un-manned missions there are as well several of such activities. Several concepts serve for example to restore disintegrated satellites. So far, these plans have not reached concrete realization.  One can within the on-orbit servicing missions differentiate into the tanking, orbital maneuvers, reparation, upgrade, establishing of larger structures and, very importantly for the future, the cleaning of outer space from orbital debris. For all these on-orbit servicing activities the place of a satellite or space object, its status, the communication and the structure of the mission is of importance. Overall on-orbit servicing is of great importance since it enables to reduce mission costs and thus increases the value of a mission and its flexibility. Since the overall trend of modern space flight is to reduce costs on-orbit servicing will certainly increase in the future.

by Quentin Verspieren

On-Orbit Servicing (OOS) is a game-changer in contemporary space operations. After their deployment into the emptiness of the cosmos, space objects are not abandoned to their fate anymore but could benefit from repairs, refueling or other forms of maintenance. Considerably complex and expensive interventions, such as the five Hubble Space Telescope servicing missions, are expected to be conducted for a fraction of the price and without risking human lives. The successful life-extension mission of Northrop Grumman’s Mission Extension Vehicle-2 (MEV-2) on Intelsat 10-02 was a fascinating preview of the space industry’s future. Nevertheless, beyond its obvious benefits, the refinement of technologies enabling spacecraft to interact with one another, cooperatively or not, raises numerous security issues. Aware of our societies’ reliance on the space infrastructure, governments are monitoring with great concerns worldwide advances in rendezvous and proximity operations (RPO) – which include both OOS and active debris removal. In recent years, frequent cases of unnotified close-approaches of Western geostationary satellites by the infamous Luch-Olymp reignited the debate on the potential risks of RPO: communications interception, technology inspection or even co-orbital anti-satellite operation. Although there are doubts on the advantages of on-orbit counterspace capabilities, with regards to cheaper and simpler ground-based alternatives such as direct-energy weapons, and electronic or cyber operations, tensions are on the rise and should be addressed. What about space law in all this? Legal history teaches us to be modest with any form of arms control instrument in the space domain. What can therefore be done to reduce tensions in outer space, in particular regarding RPO? For most problems, good answers can be found in the past, and a recent one in that particular case. In all domains, and a fortiori outer space, tension arises from the fertile lands of miscommunication, misunderstandings and miscalculations. In 2011, United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon established the Group of Governmental Experts on Transparency and Confidence-building Measures (TCBMs) in Outer Space Activities. The Group’s report, released in 2013, provided simple, pragmatic and elegant answers to the rise of tensions in outer space, based on information exchange, notifications, consultation mechanisms, etc. Almost ten years on, few of these recommendations have been implemented by major space powers. So before thinking about new initiatives, new projects, new reports, let us promote the worldwide adoption of the TCBMs!