Robotic servicing demo resumes on ISS

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After a two year hiatus, engineers have resumed experiments on ISS to demonstrate robotic servicing of satellites in space.

Known by its creative team as the “little ISS experiment that could,” RRM broke uncharted ground in 2011-2013 with a set of activities that debuted robotic tools and procedures to refuel the propellant tanks of existing satellites. Its second phase of operations, which took place in April and May and will resume again later in 2015, offers something entirely different and just as disruptive, says Reed. “We’ve outfitted the RRM module with new hardware so we can shift our focus to satellite inspection, instrument life extension, and even techniques for instrument swap-out,” says Reed. Such servicing technologies could open new possibilities for owners of spacecraft in low and geosynchronous Earth orbit, he says.

Many of the designs of this demo project are based on actual research satellites that need refueling or repair. Thus, if the robot can do the work on ISS, it is likely it can also do the work at the satellite itself.


  • PeterF

    I’m still curious why remote presence technology is still only in its infancy. The first time I saw an underwater “Waldo” demonstration, I questioned why they even needed to send a human down in a pressure capsule. Why not just lengthen the wires and have the operator sit on the surface and control the device through a tether?
    The same principle applies in space. Telepresence would allow an “orbital mechanic” to repair equipment without having to perform an EVA, eliminating the inefficiencies and danger every time you have to go through an airlock.
    An orbital repair facility with just a few operators on board could control multiple remote repair units (MacGyvers?) through telepresence. The facility would be located in a high, near equatorial orbit.
    Any time a satellite was in trouble, the owner of the satellite would put in a work request. The facility would dispatch a remote servicing unit (RSU) outfitted with any special tools and supplies (up charge). The OMS would be a reaction mass saving solar sail and ION thruster combination. Chemical reaction thrusters could be added if the customer requested them (time is money) Once the RSU rendezvoused with the satellite, repair would be attempted using virtual reality telepresence.
    If the satellite could not be repaired by the RSU, the RSU would then be used as a tug and return the malfunctioning unit to the orbital facility for repair or salvage.
    While this might seem expensive it would be a LOT cheaper than building and orbiting a new satellite.
    A satellite constellation owner might even wish to pre-locate ready spares at the facility to be able to fill holes (for a nominal fee).
    Downtime between missions would be filled by using RSUs to salvage old dead satellites.
    Debris from breakups could be collected by placing a dedicated unit slightly out of phase of the original satellite’s orbit and collecting debris with manipulators on a long tethers every time one comes close. (vacuum cleaner) This could take some time considering the dispersal rate over time. The country of origin would be obligated to pay the cost of recovery because of existing international agreements.
    The salvaged bits could be stored in a “junkyard” (a big mesh bag attached to the facility)

  • Edward

    That is a nice goal, but as you noted, “remote presence technology is still only in its infancy” even on Earth.

    Robert’s posting shows that there are now serious efforts at doing some of what you suggest. Because actual repair work in space is still difficult (Hubble and ISS work have demonstrated this), they are starting with a relatively easy task: refueling. We (or at least the Russians) already have automated docking figured out, so if a robot can dock with a satellite’s “gas cap,” then the satellite’s working life can be extended.

    As mankind gains experience with space-based teleoperated or autonomous equipment, I’m sure that the companies that will soon do business in space will jump all over that technology as an inexpensive way of keeping the expensive space hardware operational.

    Lockheed Martin already wants to put an unmanned space tug into orbit.

    Meanwhile, humans are still figuring out how to live and work in space. Google has more hours on their self-driving cars than humans have being in space.

    It isn’t as easy as you may think. Even the contestants for Google’s X-Prize are still on the ground, not on the moon, eight years later, and they don’t have to do fine-tuned repair work.

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