ESA Progresses with In-Orbit Servicing Missions

ESA Progresses with In-Orbit Servicing Missions

ESA has conducted extensive work on IOS, including as part of its Clean Space initiative for the removal and prevention of space debris. As part of this research, ESA Preparation invited industry partners to outline their vision of Europe’s first IOS mission, to be launched as early as 2028.

Astroscale, ClearSpace, D-Orbit, and Telespazio (collaborating with Thales Alenia Space) were given funding to mature their ideas, and their results were presented in preparation for the 2022 ESA Council at the Ministerial level.

In-Orbit Servicing (IOS) refers to extending the life or functionalities of spacecraft that are already in orbit. This can be done by performing maintenance, adjusting a spacecraft’s orbit, changing the direction it is facing, providing more fuel, or even changing or upgrading the instruments onboard.

“In-Orbit Servicing could fundamentally change the way that future satellites are designed and operated. Towards the 2030s, satellites will likely need to be designed with interfaces and other features that allow service and disposal spacecraft to do their work,” says Ross Findlay, IOS system engineer at ESA.

Satellites of the future may carry less fuel and larger instruments. The option of in-orbit assembly also means that future satellites could be designed to consist of modules that are easy to assemble and individually replace. For the same reasons that plugs and sockets for electronics have standard shapes, discussions on standardized ‘docking’ structures have already begun, to make it easier for one model of servicing spacecraft to latch on to different types of satellites.

In-Orbit Servicing is a commercial question

More than half of all satellites being launched are commercial, so commercial operators need to be involved if we wish to make servicing a standard procedure. “We made it a mandatory endpoint for all four teams to have some kind of relationship to an actual customer that they want to provide this service to,” notes Ross.

“This led to very interesting discussions between ESA, the companies interested in setting up IOS missions, and companies who own the satellites to be serviced. Take for example the legal implications: if two satellites collide during servicing, who is responsible?”

The Preparation element of ESA’s Basic Activities was in a unique position to support these mission assessment studies, including the bigger-picture commercialization opportunities. “These activities, and their contribution to the Ministerial Council meeting, demonstrates the importance of the Preparation program in supporting ideas to become a reality,” says ESA Discovery & Preparation officer Moritz Fontaine.

Telecommunications industry wants life-extension services

The four selected companies investigated the opportunities for IOS operations for satellites in low-Earth orbit (LEO) and geostationary orbit (GEO). LEO hosts important satellites such as the Hubble Space Telescope, the Copernicus Sentinel Earth observation satellites, and the International Space Station. GEO hosts Europe’s series of Meteosat weather satellites and, importantly, most satellites used for telecommunications.

A clear outcome from the four studies is that the telecommunications industry is keen for life extension services to be up and running as soon as possible. Particularly relevant is orbital maintenance: operators have to make sure the spacecraft stays exactly where it should be, and change the orbit or rotation if it has drifted over time.

Doing so costs fuel. The proposals detail how a servicing spacecraft can latch onto satellites that have run out of fuel and perform the necessary orbit control. The servicing spacecraft can stay attached for as long as needed, after which it parks the satellite in a so-called ‘graveyard orbit’ and moves on to the next satellite that needs servicing.

Fresh eyes from New Space

Interestingly, three of the four proposals came from what you might call ‘New Space’ companies. “These are newer actors with perhaps slightly different ways of approaching design and development, often involving smaller teams and more fast-paced iterations. It was refreshing to compare different workflows and discuss possible forms of collaboration,” says Ross.

Following these four studies funded by ESA Preparation, ESA’s Space Safety program has decided to move forward with two of the proposed missions. The program envisions that IOS operations will continue to expand, both in a number of missions and their capabilities. European industry has the ambition to make IOS a common procedure by the early to mid-2030s.

Click here to learn more about In-orbit Servicing and Active Debris Removal. 

Publisher: SatNow
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GNSS Constellations - A list of all GNSS satellites by constellations


Satellite NameOrbit Date
BeiDou-3 G4Geostationary Orbit (GEO)17 May, 2023
BeiDou-3 G2Geostationary Orbit (GEO)09 Mar, 2020
Compass-IGSO7Inclined Geosynchronous Orbit (IGSO)09 Feb, 2020
BeiDou-3 M19Medium Earth Orbit (MEO)16 Dec, 2019
BeiDou-3 M20Medium Earth Orbit (MEO)16 Dec, 2019
BeiDou-3 M21Medium Earth Orbit (MEO)23 Nov, 2019
BeiDou-3 M22Medium Earth Orbit (MEO)23 Nov, 2019
BeiDou-3 I3Inclined Geosynchronous Orbit (IGSO)04 Nov, 2019
BeiDou-3 M23Medium Earth Orbit (MEO)22 Sep, 2019
BeiDou-3 M24Medium Earth Orbit (MEO)22 Sep, 2019


Satellite NameOrbit Date
GSAT0223MEO - Near-Circular05 Dec, 2021
GSAT0224MEO - Near-Circular05 Dec, 2021
GSAT0219MEO - Near-Circular25 Jul, 2018
GSAT0220MEO - Near-Circular25 Jul, 2018
GSAT0221MEO - Near-Circular25 Jul, 2018
GSAT0222MEO - Near-Circular25 Jul, 2018
GSAT0215MEO - Near-Circular12 Dec, 2017
GSAT0216MEO - Near-Circular12 Dec, 2017
GSAT0217MEO - Near-Circular12 Dec, 2017
GSAT0218MEO - Near-Circular12 Dec, 2017


Satellite NameOrbit Date
Kosmos 2569--07 Aug, 2023
Kosmos 2564--28 Nov, 2022
Kosmos 2559--10 Oct, 2022
Kosmos 2557--07 Jul, 2022
Kosmos 2547--25 Oct, 2020
Kosmos 2545--16 Mar, 2020
Kosmos 2544--11 Dec, 2019
Kosmos 2534--27 May, 2019
Kosmos 2529--03 Nov, 2018
Kosmos 2527--16 Jun, 2018


Satellite NameOrbit Date
Navstar 82Medium Earth Orbit19 Jan, 2023
Navstar 81Medium Earth Orbit17 Jun, 2021
Navstar 78Medium Earth Orbit22 Aug, 2019
Navstar 77Medium Earth Orbit23 Dec, 2018
Navstar 76Medium Earth Orbit05 Feb, 2016
Navstar 75Medium Earth Orbit31 Oct, 2015
Navstar 74Medium Earth Orbit15 Jul, 2015
Navstar 73Medium Earth Orbit25 Mar, 2015
Navstar 72Medium Earth Orbit29 Oct, 2014
Navstar 71Medium Earth Orbit02 Aug, 2014


Satellite NameOrbit Date
NVS-01Geostationary Orbit (GEO)29 May, 2023
IRNSS-1IInclined Geosynchronous Orbit (IGSO)12 Apr, 2018
IRNSS-1HSub Geosynchronous Transfer Orbit (Sub-GTO)31 Aug, 2017
IRNSS-1GGeostationary Orbit (GEO)28 Apr, 2016
IRNSS-1FGeostationary Orbit (GEO)10 Mar, 2016
IRNSS-1EGeosynchronous Orbit (IGSO)20 Jan, 2016
IRNSS-1DInclined Geosynchronous Orbit (IGSO)28 Mar, 2015
IRNSS-1CGeostationary Orbit (GEO)16 Oct, 2014
IRNSS-1BInclined Geosynchronous Orbit (IGSO)04 Apr, 2014
IRNSS-1AInclined Geosynchronous Orbit (IGSO)01 Jul, 2013