(Sen) - NASA is developing the technology to build Earth-orbiting 'service stations' that would use robotic technology to repair and service satellites.
Engineers at NASA's Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida are assisting the space agency's Goddard Space Flight Center in developing the concept for bringing a high-technology gas pump, robotic mechanic and tow trucks for satellites in space, which would be able to repair satellites in geosynchronous orbit.
The idea of servicing satellites in space is becoming increasingly important. We are currently reliant on satellites for everything from meteorology to communications and defence. According to Tom Aranyos, technical integration manager in NASA's Fluids and Propulsion Division at KSC "these expensive spacecraft eventually develop systems failures or run out of propellant. Servicing and refueling these satellites can keep them operating longer and in the correct orbit." It also gives the owners of the satellites more profit from their investment.
Currently preliminary work with a technology demonstrator - the Robotic Refueling Mission (RRM) - is underway on the International Space Station. It was delivered there by the space shuttle Atlantis on its final mission in July 2011. It was then transferred to a temporary platform on the Special Purpose Dexterous Manipulator, also known as Dextre, a two-armed robot developed by the Canadian Space Agency that's part of the station's Mobile Servicing System.
The RRM is designed by the same team that developed the instruments and astronaut tools for the Hubble Space Telescope servicing missions. The four RRM tools cut and manipulate wires, unscrew caps, open and close valves and transfer fluid demonstrating that a remote-controlled robot can service and refuel a satellite in orbit.
In March 2012, Dextre performed the most intricate operation ever attempted by a space robot, cutting two twisted wires each only 0.5mm in diameter using the RRM Wire Cutter Tool.
The RRM is scheduled to demonstrate refueling this Autumn. NASA has been developing a highly reliable, leak-free propellant transfer module which can take high accuracy metering at high pressure, low flow rates.
The next step at Goddard for building satellite servicing technologies is to study and develop Technology Readiness Levels, (TRLs), for a fully robotic maintenance vehicle that could service satellites, including those that were not originally intended to be serviced.
Plans for the future could eventually see specific service spacecraft. These craft would have navigation systems, enhanced robotic arms and tools, and a supply of propellant. They would then be able to dock with satellites requiring aid, preforming tasks such as refueling, re-positioning, inspecting for damage and replacing and repairing components of the satellites.