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Communications satellites could have their tenure in orbit extended, thanks to a UK company's plans for a 'space tug'.

The first craft is scheduled to ride to orbit in 2007, thanks to a recently inked deal with Arianespace, but company directors now say it could make its debut even sooner, according to the BBC.

Communications satellites whose fuel has run out are currently destined for an incandescent end in the upper atmosphere, even if the comms kit on board is in good working order. Orbital Recovery, the company that will build the tugs, says this is an unnecessary waste.

It proposes sending up a small craft that would dock with the satellite and take over propulsion and guidance duties. This could extend the life of the satellite by as much as ten years, according to company CEO, Phil Braden.

"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," Braden said.

He added that the company was already in negotiations with operators, and was confident that a deal would be signed soon, perhaps leading to an announcement early next year. He also talking to NASA about a possible Hubble servicing mission.

The tug, dubbed ConeXpress, takes advantage of a feature common to most communications satellites: the apogee kick motor. Using a device designed by the German Aerospace Centre, it can use the apogee kick motor as a docking port.

Braden said that the sell was easy, but convincing companies that his firm could manage the risk was more difficult. ®

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