An article published on Monday, August 4th on Space.com, highlights NASA’s efforts to create an orbital robotic gas station for satellites. The program has advanced off the drawing board over the last few months, and NASA researchers are currently testing working prototypes.
Problem with aging satellites
Old or malfunctioning satellites are a growing problem. There are thousands of satellites circling the Earth today, transmitting GPS navigation signals, weather forecasts, television shows and much more, and all of these devices require fuel to maneuver and stay in orbit. Given there is no method to refuel most of these aging satellites, many that could otherwise provide additional years of service have to be retired (meaning they either dangerously crash back to Earth or become space junk).
NASA’s Bob Granath wrote that by developing this new satellite refueling technology, “NASA hopes to add precious years of functional life to satellites and expand options for operators who face unexpected emergencies, tougher economic demands and aging fleets.”
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Furthermore, officials with NASA’s Satellite Servicing Capabilities Office also commented, “the capability to refuel and repair satellites at this orbit could make GEO [geosynchronous Earth orbit] more sustainable and help mitigate orbital debris problems.”
Satellite “gas station” program
NASA’s Satellite Servicing Capabilities Office at Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland first teamed up with the Kennedy Space Center in 2011 to develop a method to refuel satellites in space as they orbit the planet. Together they created a prototype robotic device to carry out satellite refueling.
However, this new robotic technology is not just limited to fueling. NASA says it can also be used to repair malfunctioning satellites or even build new structures in space.
The Goddard and Kennedy partnership has been highly successful because of each organization’s capabilities. Kennedy’s long history of preparing spacecraft for launch meant that it had a great deal of experience with methods for loading propellant. Kennedy’s involvement also meant “project participants were able to use existing equipment, facilities and excess Space Shuttle Program hardware, saving millions of dollars in development costs,” according to NASA.
Goddard developed most of the robotics, and they just recently shipped a robotic arm to Kennedy to test the system’s remote-control capability. The remote robot operator, located at Goddard in Maryland, connected the end of the robot arm to a valve on a dummy satellite, which was located at Kennedy in Florida. The team said that the nitrogen tetroxide, a common spacecraft fuel, flowed smoothly through the valve with no problems.
One important benefit of refueling satellites in orbit is less dangerous space junk in the Earth’s upper atmosphere. Instead of having dead satellites floating around, engineers on the ground can extend their lives with refueling, putting off costly new launches and slowing the rate of material sent into space. There are currently more than 100 government-owned spacecraft and 360 commercial communication satellites in geosynchronous orbit.