Could Israel's Orbital Tugboat Rescue Europe's Galileo Satellites?

Last week, two European Space Agency Galileo satellites were injected into a wrong, lower orbit. As concerns grow about finding a way to correct the mishap, an insurance company is reportedly consulting with an Israeli startup that is developing an orbital tugboat to grapple wayward satellites.

[Image: Effective Space Solutions]

Although ESA ground teams confirm that they are in contact with the Galileo satellites and are able to control them, the real question is whether the satellites—Europe's version of the U.S. GPS satellite navigation system—will be usable.

As Forbes reports:

Both satellites are equipped with 70kg each of propellant and are capable of moving away from their current orbit. But one of the problems facing the Galileo team, the ESA spokesperson told me, is that moving the satellites to the target orbit might require the use of all of the available fuel – meaning that the life cycle of the satellites would be shortened. Additionally, he added, there may not even be enough fuel to get to the target orbit anyway.

The ESA is also investigating the possibility that the satellites might still be usable for navigation in their current orbits, but that's still being evaluated by teams on the ground. "The worst case scenario," according to the ESA, is that the satellites may not be able to be used for the Galileo program at all."

Meanwhile, according to SpaceNews, insurers have met with representatives of Effective Space Solutions—a startup founded by Arie Halsband, a former Israel Aerospace Industries executive. The company is developing a microsatellite called the DeOrbiter (photo above), which would be used to extend the lifetime of satellites running low on fuel.

The tech site Israel21c reports:

As an outer-space tugboat, the DeOrbiter is designed to service satellites, keep them "in station" to extend their useful life, monitor them, deorbit them and pull lost satellites back on course. It will have to match the speed of the misplaced satellites, which move at 13,500 kilometers per hour (8,400 mph), and could be spinning.

"DeOrbiter has a sensor to locate a satellite," Halsband explains. "Then it achieves a rendezvous with the satellite and has a unique grappling and docking mechanism to hold it in place. We put a lot of energy into our microsatellite that allows each one to do these tasks more than 20 times."

The microsatellite is not only more lightweight and cheaper to make than a full-size satellite, but also much cheaper to launch.

This gives the Israeli company an edge over competitors that are designing full-size satellite tugboats, says Halsband, because the price tag for launching a satellite into space is the most substantial cost of the mission – up to $100 million for a complete launcher.

In addition, DeOrbiter's ion propulsion system is said to be 10-15 times more efficient than that of competing designs.

Effective Space Solutions claim that their tiny tugboat could be ready in 18 months. In the meantime, reports SpaceNews, other companies and space programs, including NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, are eyeing the stranded-but-healthy Galileo satellites as an ideal opportunity to test their own robotic rescue technologies, which promise to become a growing niche industry in the near-future.