July 12, 2011

Preparing For Satellite Repair In Space

The U.S. government is laying the groundwork for an entire new industry to service satellites in orbit.

The Robotic Refueling Mission flying aboard space shuttle Atlantis will use the International Space Station's Dextre robot to test tools for refueling and repairing satellites.

"I've likened it to a Fisher-Price play toy for a robot, and I don't mean that in a negative sense," Atlantis commander Chris Ferguson said in a preflight interview with Reuters.

The astronauts aboard Atlantis' final flight arrived at the ISS on Sunday to deliver a year's worth of food, clothing and other supplies.

NASA hired Space Exploration Technologies and Orbital Sciences Corp. to deliver cargo to the station beginning next year.

The Obama Administration wants NASA to buy rides for the astronauts aboard Russia's Soyuz spacecraft, which will cost the space agency over $50 million a seat.

The $22.6 million Robotic Refueling Mission equipment is scheduled to be installed outside of the space station during a 6.5-hour spacewalk on Tuesday.

The equipment consists of a box of tools, fittings and a tank of ethanol fuel that the station's Dextre robot can use to perform tasks that would be needed to refuel a satellite.

NASA plans to hire an industry partner for a follow-up mission around 2015 to refuel a U.S. government weather satellite and then nine other spacecraft in orbit.

"We want the commercial world to take over this service," Benjamin Reed, deputy project manager for the Satellite Servicing Capabilities Office at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland, said in a statement.

There are about 360 operational commercial communications satellites and another 100 government-owned satellites orbiting Earth.

"Every single one of them one day is going to run out of fuel and be thrown away. That's the way it's always been done. If a robot can go up and refuel it, you wouldn't have to throw it away," Reed said in a statement.

Because the satellites were not designed with refueling in mind, the technical hurdles are steep.

Reed said since the same technology also could be used to disable satellites, NASA intends to be as open as possible about the project.

"We plan an international workshop next spring where we will lay out in more detail what our plans are to make the world aware of what we are doing so that we can minimize the anti-satellite weapon accusers," Reed said in a statement.

The spacewalk will be conducted by NASA's two space station crewmembers, Ron Garan and Mike Fossum.

Atlantis is due back to Earth on July 21.  NASA gave the crew an extra day at the space station to complete more unpacking tasks.

The mission is the 135th and final flight in the 30-year-old shuttle program.


Image Caption: Dextre, built by the Canadian Space Agency, has arms more than 9 feet in length and can attach power tools as fingers. Credit: NASA


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