As it turns out, repairing satellites that are already floating around up in space is actually pretty difficult but NASA is testing robots that might just make this very complicated task feasible after all. Thanks to a group called SSCO, which is operating from Goddard, the robotic technology required to make this happen is currently being perfected. The team has been working with the Kennedy Space Center to develop, test and build everything that is required to make satellite repairs a reality.
What is required to make such a task possible? One of the primary challenges associated with this is that satellites were not actually constructed with the intent that they would receive in-flight maintenance. Fuel caps have been sealed three times, hoses are dangerously floating about and satellite fuel itself is already extremely corrosive and contained within intense pressures. All of these aspects combined means that for NASA to test robots that can repair satellites, which are already floating around in space, requires a lot of effort.
Fortunately, there has already been some progress in this area. NASA has a robot called Dextre, which back in January completed its test to refuel a mock satellite that was floating around the exterior of the International Space Station. Much like any other satellite, this mock one was not meant to receive in-flight refuels, yet Dextre was able to successfully complete its mission regardless. According to a spokesperson, the most dangerous part of the job was preventing dangerous leaks from seeping out of the satellite. This was because making the refuel required Dextre to have absolutely perfect precision. Thanks to the combined efforts of NASA and CSA robotics controllers, the mission was completed flawlessly.
After Dextre’s refueling job was done, the next step was for something called RROxiTT, which stands for the “Remote Robotic Oxidizer Transfer Test” to be successfully completed. Basically, SSCO is using real satellite propellant to test new advanced technologies on the ground at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center and Kennedy Space Center. Realistic space-like conditions are being used, which includes in-flight pressures and flow rates being taken into account.
After these RROxiTT tests have been successfully completed, SSCO will have obtained enough valuable data and information to resolve any anomalies ahead of time and make the preparations for actual space flight satellite repair. Satellites use a variety of hazardous propellants to operate such as Xenon so ensuring that these materials can be safely replaced will also have to be tested on the ground in order to make sure that it can be done up in space without any discrepancies occurring.
The benefits to servicing satellites that are already flying around in space could be huge. With NASA and SSCO testing the steps required to repair satellites in space with robots on the ground first, there is room to catch potential problems so they are not discovered in space where it would be much more difficult to fix. NASA has described that with these servicing capabilities, comes an opportunity to greatly expand both future government and commercial options for operators. Satellites will have longer lifespans and ultimately, the path for human exploration of space and even planetary defense will become more feasible. All of this can become possible with the initial small step of using robots to repair satellites that are already floating around in space, first.