January 15, 2013
NASA Set To Demonstrate Robotic Refueling Mission
[Watch Video: RRM Day One - Captured]
Lee Rannals for redOrbit.com — Your Universe Online
NASA is about to take a new step in advancing robotic satellite-servicing technologies by testing the Robotic Refueling Mission (RRM).
The space agency's investigation could impact the satellites that deliver products Americans rely on daily, such as weather reports, cell phones and television news.
Controllers will be using the International Space Station's (ISS) remotely operated Special Purpose Dexterous Manipulator robot to simulate robotic refueling in space.
NASA will be demonstrating tools, technologies and techniques that could be used one day to make satellites in space greener, more robust and more capable of delivering services to Earth.
"Every satellite has a lifespan and eventual retirement date, determined by the reliability of its components and how much fuel it can carry," Benjamin Reed, deputy project manager of NASA's Satellite Servicing Capabilities Office (SSCO) said in a statement.
He says that repairing and refueling satellites in space can be less expensive than building and launching new spacecraft.
The upcoming RRM tests will look at what it would take to repair and refuel satellites traveling the space highway of geosynchronous Earth. This space highway is located about 22,000 miles above Earth, and is the orbital path that is home to more than 400 satellites.
With this program, NASA hopes to add more years of functional life to satellites, and expand options for operators who face unexpected emergencies, tougher economic demands and aging fleets.
The space agency said that it hopes these technologies will boost the commercial satellite-servicing industry.
Fixing and relocating "ailing" satellites could also help manage the growing orbital debris problem, which threatens space operations.
The washing-machine-sized RRM module contains the components, activity boards and the tools to practice several tasks to perform in orbit during a real service mission.
Back in 2012, RRM helped demonstrate dexterous robotic operations in space. During these tests, robots were able to successfully snip two twisted wires with the thickness of two sheets of paper, with less than an inch of clearance.
During the upcoming demonstration, RRM will employ the Canadian-built Dextre, and will show that space robots can be controlled from Earth.
"The RRM operations team is very excited about the upcoming refueling demonstration," Charlie Bacon, RRM operations manager, said in a statement.
"Over the last two years, the team has put in more than 300 hours of preparation -- reviewing procedures, running simulations, and communicating with team members from other NASA centers and our international partners. When we finally execute the namesake task of RRM, we anticipate that our work will culminate in proving that in-orbit satellite refueling is no longer future technology -- it's current technology," he added.
RRM will never fix or refuel a satellite itself, but it is paving the way for future in-orbit robotic servicing missions.