Robot refueling of satellites: The demo mission on ISS goes forward this month.
As much as I celebrate this work, conceived and designed by engineers at the Goddard Space Flight Center (the same people who ran the missions that maintained the Hubble Space Telescope), I worry that nothing will come of it. The demo mission itself is designed to duplicate exactly the refueling of several climate satellites already in orbit whose lifespans are ending merely because they are running out of fuel. If the ISS demo succeeds, the next natural step would be to plan an actual robotic mission to refuel these satellites.
The worrisome part is that NASA rarely follows through on this kind of research. For example, the agency did tests of an ion engine back in the early 1970s, and it wasn’t until the late 1990s before they finally flew a mission using that technology. Worse, the federal budget situation probably means there is no money to fly such a mission.
Hopefully, some private company will take a look at this engineering, which is all in the public domain, and decide to use it for their own purposes.