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Last Updated: Thursday, 30 September, 2004, 13:25 GMT 14:25 UK
First space tug deal 'on cards'
The tug will help extend the lifetimes of telecommunications satellites

The UK firm behind the so-called space tug, designed to extend the lifetimes of satellites, says it is confident of closing a deal on a commercial flight.

A deal to launch the first orbital tugboat in 2007 has already been signed with European rocket firm Arianespace.

But the vehicle needs a target and the chief executive of Orbital Recovery - the company behind the tug - says the first flight will be a commercial one.

Phil Braden said an announcement could be made early next year.

It's not a difficult value proposition to understand. When you say to a satellite operator: 'Do you want to make a lot more money out of your asset?' They say: 'Sure'
Phil Braden, Orbital Recovery Limited
"We are in very protracted discussions with a number of satellite operators," Phil Braden, chief executive officer of Orbital Recovery Limited, told BBC News Online.

The tugboat, called the ConeXpress Orbital Life Extension Vehicle (CX-OLEV) is designed to prolong the operating lifetimes of telecommunications satellites, perhaps by as much as 10 years and a minimum of five.

ConeXpress is designed to launch with the same platform used to carry regular satellites into space aboard an Ariane 5. Once in space, the tugboat prepares for a rendezvous with the satellite, approaching it from from below and docking with it.

The tug's ion propulsion engine uses electricity from its solar panels to charge xenon gas, then spits ionized particles through a nozzle to provide thrust.

Docking procedure

It links up using a docking device designed by the German Aerospace Center (DLR) that connects to the satellite's apogee kick motor.

This motor is a common feature on nearly all telecommunications satellites and provides a convenient interface point that is always within the satellite's centre of gravity.

ConeXpress then provides the satellite with the propulsion, navigation and guidance required to maintain it in its proper orbit beyond the normal lifetime.

ConeXpress will use a feature common to all satellites as its 'docking port'

Once a telecommunications satellite runs out of propellant, it is boosted into a "disposal orbit" and decommissioned.

But in many cases, their communications payloads could continue to function long past the decommissioning date.

"There are actually 73 satellites that are commercially viable and technically viable for life extension before the end of 2011. That's our defined market," said Mr Braden.

"We went into our marketing campaign only about three months ago when the European Space Agency mid-term review was done. Clearly, when you speak to the satellite operators, you need more than a great idea."

Easy pitch

Telecommunications satellites that Orbital Recovery is looking at typically cost around $250m and have a lifespan of about 12 years.

"It's not a difficult value proposition to understand. When you say to a satellite operator: 'Do you want to make a lot more money out of your asset?' They say: 'Sure'," said Mr Braden.

The tug could boost the lifetime of some satellites by 10 years or more

"But it all comes down to convincing them you can do it and convincing them you can manage the risk."

Orbital Recovery's technology can also rescue satellites placed in the wrong orbit by their launch vehicles, or those that have become stranded in an incorrect orbit during positioning manoeuvres.

The firm has joined up with Arianespace to cover the risk and with PriceWaterhouseCoopers on project financing.

It has also been involved in continuing talks with the US space agency about possible missions to service the Hubble Space Telescope.

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