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NASA to robotically repair satellites in orbit [Photo Gallery]

Washing machine-sized robot will refuel satellites robotically while in orbit



GREENBELT, Md.—Considering everything NASA’s ever done – sending man to the moon, landing a robot on Mars, repairing the Hubble telescope – it’s amazing that all of those rocket scientists have never been able to robotically repair a satellite in space that wasn’t built to be fixed in orbit.

But this September, NASA hopes to finally change that when its Robotic Refuelling Mission (RRM) transfers from the International Space Station (ISS) to its new home aboard the space station’s ExPRESS Logistics Carrier-4 (ELC4).

A joint effort between NASA and the Canadian Space Agency, RRM should demonstrate the technologies, tools and techniques needed to robotically service satellites, especially those not built with servicing in mind.

“Robotic refueling and satellite servicing could extend the lifetimes of satellites, offering significant savings in delayed replacement costs,” says Frank Cepollina, associate director of the Satellite Servicing Capabilities Office (SSCO) at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. “Such servicing has the potential to allow human and robotic explorers to reach distant destinations more efficiently and effectively.”

The RRM module is about the size of a washing machine and weighs approximately 250 kilograms, with dimensions of 84 cm by 110 cm by 115 cm. RRM includes 1.7L of ethanol that will be used to demonstrate fluid transfer in orbit.

RRM operations will be handled by flight controllers at Goddard, Johnson Space Center, Marshall Space Flight Center and the Canadian Space Agency’s control center in St. Hubert, Quebec. The station’s two-armed robotic system, Canada’s Special Purpose Dexterous Manipulator, or “Dextre,” will manipulate the tools necessary for the demonstrations.

Included within the RRM module are four unique tools developed at Goddard: the Wire Cutter/Blanket Manipulation Tool, the Multifunction Tool, the Safety Cap Removal Tool, and the Nozzle Tool. Each tool will be stowed in its own storage bay until Dextre retrieves it for use. Each tool contains two integral cameras with built-in LEDs to give mission controllers the ability to see and control the tools.

After the transfer to ELC-4, mission operators will release the launch locks on the four RRM tools to be used at a later date by Dextre. This will be followed by a series of vision tasks to develop machine vision algorithms against the harsh lighting in orbit, verifying the RRM can see during future demonstrations.

The first set of refueling demonstration tasks are currently scheduled for January 2012. These activities will verify that on-orbit satellite repairs can be performed with today’s technology. In most cases, satellites are fueled before they leave the ground, triple-sealed and covered with a protective blanket – designed to never be accessed again.

Launched to the ISS in July onboard the last shuttle mission, RRM marks the first use of the space station’s Dextre robot beyond robotic station maintenance for technology research and development. It is also the first on-orbit demonstration to test, prove and advance the technology needed to perform robotic servicing on spacecraft not designed for refueling and repair.

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