[Satellite News 07-07-11] The Canadian Space Agency (CSA) is taking a stab at in-space satellite repair and refueling by demonstrating the abilities of Dextre — its contributed service robot onboard the International Space Station. Working with NASA, the CSA is sending new tools to the robot that will enable it to perform satellite maintenance onboard the shuttle Atlantis.
Dextre was originally designed for logistics and maintenance on the ISS. Since becoming fully operational in 2010, it has primarily served to unload unmanned cargo spaceships.
Speaking at a NASA press conference, CSA Missions Operations Manager Mathieu Caron said the agency recognized that repairs performed by robots could help extend the lifespan Internet and GPS satellites. “Definitely, one of the objectives of this particular demonstration is to see just how far we can push Dextre. This is the first time it will be used in a research and development project. These repairs are becoming increasingly necessary in the space around the Earth where satellites orbit gets increasingly crowded, putting them at higher risk of collisions.”
NASA’s Atlantis will deliver a Robotic Refueling Mission module designed for Dextre, which includes manipulation parts similar to those found on a real satellite. The robot will operate via remote control by an engineering crew on Earth, guided by cameras attached to the new tools.
NASA Satellite Servicing Project Manager Frank Cepollina said the U.S. agency partnered with CSA on the initiative to encourage private space companies to develop their own robots to provide a variety of services.
“Without such a thing, the satellites that are not getting this support would end in failure or would end their lives abruptly or short of full expectation of utilization,” he said. “Our reliance on communications satellites is increasing because of the growing demand to transmit larger and larger amounts of data via the Internet or mobile devices. And the more satellites you put up there — which you’re going to have to do the cover bandwidth — the more probability there is that you’re going to need a tow truck.”
Satellite repair services are nothing new to the private sector. In January, U.S. Space, a space solutions provider for government and commercial markets, teamed up with ATK to create ViviSat, a new satellite life extension venture that aims to provide geosynchronous satellite operators with in-orbit mission extension and protection services.
In order to add to the revenue-producing life of its customers’ satellites, ViviSat developed a Mission Extension Vehicle designed to dock with orbiting satellites and serve as a back-up propulsion system, enabling satellites that have run out of maneuvering fuel yet still have enough electricity to operate to extend their mission.
Dextre’s new tools, however, are designed to deal with satellite parts typically not developed for in-orbit service and repair. “Satellites are built with valves, caps, hoses and connections that aren’t easily manipulated by robots. [Dextre] has been built with a lot of flexibility that allows it to do things for which it was not originally designed. For example, Dextre was supposed to be controlled only by astronauts on the space station, but has been upgraded to allow it to be controlled from Earth,” Caron added.
NASA hopes to launch Atlantis on July 8, but warned that there was an 80 percent chance poor weather would interfere with Atlantis’s fuelling, and a 70 percent chance that the shuttle would be unable to launch Friday as scheduled.