Robots Help NASA With Refueling Their Satellites [Video]

Robots are helping humans everyday with daily tasks but now they might be able to help in space. NASA or National Aeronautics and Space Administration, has decided to have robots one day help them with refueling their satellites. Today, NASA conducted a remote test, titled the Remote Robotics Oxidizer Transfer Test, on new technologies that used a robotic arm to add satellite fluid, called satellite oxidizer, into tanks in a spacecraft. The fluid is extremely dangerous since it can combust when it comes into contact with fuel that makes the satellite move. Satellite oxidizer also can only be handled in a certain way and uses a specific set of technologies to transfer it.

The tests began in January when the Robotic Refueling Mission took place and showed that robots that were controlled remotely could sift through wires and caps on a satellite fuel valve so they could add fuel to an orbiting spacecraft that did not need to be serviced. The test used ethanol instead of satellite oxidizer so it fit the safety requirements. Benjamin Reed, a deputy manager for the Satellite Servicing Capabilities Office, said that he and his team were extremely pleased with the results of the Robotic Refueling Mission and that continuing the project was always the plan. He continues by saying that there were certain parts of the satellite refueling that could not be demonstrated safely while they were using the space station as a test spot. Reed also said that the next step in the project will be to complete the Remote Robotic Oxidizer Transfer Test.

The test was meant to show how robots can transfer the fluid at pressures that are similar during a space flight and flow rates through a propellant valve then into the mock tank. Marion Riley, the Satellite Servicing Capabilities Office test manager for the Remote Robotic Oxidizer Transfer Test, said that no one has every attempted this type of oxidizer transfer before. In any NASA-sized challenge, Riley explained, the team had to sort through or sometimes create the correct set of procedures and technologies to get the job done. She also said that by testing on the ground they knew they were on the right track.

Once the test was completed, NASA found two problems they needed to fix if they wanted to continue with the process. The first problem is being able to transport the fluid safely and transferring the oxidizer into the tank which both might be tackled by the Kennedy Space Center. The second problem is unscrewing the fuel cap that was not supposed to be detached. The Goddard Space Flight Center will be tackling the second one because of their experience with robotics. Even though the test was successful, more testing is necessary before the robots are used in space. Aside from possibly helping NASA with refueling their satellites, the robots might also be used in the future to refuel spacecrafts on Earth.

Brian Nufer, the lead fluids engineer for the Satellite Servicing Capabilities Office for the Kennedy Space Center team, said that the task of transferring the fluid from one container to another in a safe, controlled way requires a complex system between both containers. Nufer explains that in order to create the systems, both the Kennedy Space Center and the Goddard Space Flight Center would have to create new technologies and modify existing ones that were originally not meant to be used for this type of operating environment and application.

NASA might be closer to using robots to help them with refueling their satellites after a second test was performed. The test used a robotic arm to remotely add ethanol, instead of satellite oxidizer, to fuel tanks in a spacecraft. Once the test was completed, NASA found two problems that will have to be fixed before the project continues. The first problem was safely transporting the fuel as well as transferring the fuel to the containers and the second problem was unscrewing the fuel cap. NASA said that this project will be used for governmental and commercial operators as a new way to recover from anomalies or extending the life of their satellites.

By Jordan Bonte


IEE Spectrum
Red Orbit
Extreme Tech

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