Tag Archives: robotic refueling

NASA approves robot satellite refueling mission

The competition heats up: NASA has approved plans to launch Restore-L, a robot mission in 2020 to refuel a satellite.

In May, NASA officially moved forward with plans to execute the ambitious, technology-rich Restore-L mission, an endeavor to launch a robotic spacecraft in 2020 to refuel a live satellite. The mission – the first of its kind in low-Earth orbit – will demonstrate that a carefully curated suite of satellite-servicing technologies are fully operational. The current candidate client for this venture is Landsat 7, a government-owned satellite in low-Earth orbit.

This mission is being spear-headed by the division at the Goddard Space Flight Center that ran the repair missions to the Hubble Space Telescope, as well as the recent robotic refueling demonstrations on ISS. With the success of those demonstrations, NASA has obviously decided to move forward with an actual flight.

The demo mission of robotic refueling of satellites on ISS goes forward this month.

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.

The second phase of NASA’s robotic refueling demo on ISS has successfully proven that a robot can remove a satellite fuel cap not designed for refueling.

The second phase of NASA’s robotic refueling demo on ISS has successfully proven that a robot can remove a satellite fuel cap not designed for refueling.

The fuel cap design is a duplicate of that used by several climate research satellites presently in orbit. These satellites were not designed to be refueled, but if they could be refueled, their usefulness in orbit could be doubled, even tripled. This test is intended to demonstrate that a robot could refuel them.

The last phase of this robotic demo will take place in August, when the robots will attempt to pump a simulated fuel into the demo satellite.