NASA Looks To Robots To Refuel And Repair Satellites In Orbit
March 7, 2014

NASA Looks To Robots To Refuel And Repair Satellites In Orbit

Lee Rannals for - Your Universe Online

NASA is using the International Space Station (ISS) as a test bed for technologies that could refuel and repair existing satellites in orbit.

The space agency said it is preparing another round of demonstrations on the space station to test the new technology. This testing will focus on real-time relative navigation, spacecraft inspection and the replenishment of cryogens in satellites that were not initially built for in-flight service.

The experiments are part of another initiative to equip robots and humans with tools and capabilities needed for spacecraft maintenance and repair, which could be useful for extended manned missions to places like an asteroid or Mars.

The Satellite Servicing Capabilities Office (SSCO) has been ongoing at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt Maryland since 2009.

“With more than 400 satellites in space that could benefit from robotic servicing, we thought a refueling test was the best place to start,” Frank Cepollina, veteran leader of the five servicing missions to the Hubble Space Telescope, and associate director of SSCO, said in a statement. “We wanted to demonstrate technologies that build life-extension capabilities – and jumpstart a discussion about new ways to manage assets in space. We never planned to stop there, however. It was only the first step.”

SSCO’s Robotic Refueling Mission (RRM) and follow-up tests have demonstrated that remotely controlled robots could work through the caps and wires on a satellite fuel valve and transfer fluid into existent satellites.

NASA conducted a demonstration called the Remote Robotic Oxidizer Transfer Test (RROxiTT) last month where a robot remotely controlled from Goddard successfully transferred corrosive satellite oxidizer into a mock satellite tank located at Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Now that this test is over, NASA said SSCO is broadening its portfolio to include xenon transfer technology.

“The lessons we learned from the Robotic Refueling Mission contributed to RROxiTT’s success and gave us confidence for future demonstrations,” Benjamin Reed, deputy project manager of SSCO, said in a statement. “We continue to draw from what we learned on orbit.”

Reed said that with RROxiTT now off its checklist, SSCO is planning to move on to another technology arena.

“A core part of our work centers on filling up satellites and their instruments with fluids that could prolong their life,” Reed said. “But that is just one small part of the puzzle we’re unraveling. We’re also thinking about how those fluids will be delivered in the first place. What technologies would it take for a robotic servicer carrying fuel 22,000 miles above the Earth to rendezvous with another satellite that’s waiting for service, perhaps even tumbling in multiple axes simultaneously?”

NASA said crew members on board the space station will be installing a new RRM tool and task boards on the RRM module.

“It’s an extremely active time for SSCO,” says Reed. “But we thrive on these challenges. We’re eager to see how these servicing technologies, and the capabilities that they enable, could benefit satellite owners and operators through life extension and assembly options. To replace or repair a car 5, 10 or 15 years into its life is a decision individuals routinely make. We want to give that option to satellite owners, whom previously have had only one option – decommission at end of life.”

Image Below: A robot servicer could use autonomous rendezvous and fluid transfer technologies to extend the life of orbiting satellites (depicted, artist’s concept). Credit: NASA