Orbiting ‘Rest Stops’ for Satellite Repair? – Discovery News
More than 1,100 satellites are orbiting the Earth right now transmitting TV shows and phone calls, collecting rainforest data and spying on missile bases around the planet. Most are expensive, costing tens or hundreds of millions of dollars to build, launch and operate.
Now NASA wants to build a satellite service station that can gas up and repair aging birds, giving them a few years more life before they fall into the Earth’s atmosphere and disintegrate.
“Is there a way working with humans and robots together to extend the useful life of satellites, by fixing them and by not allowing fuel to spill out, but give it more propellant, close it up and send it on its way?,” said Benjamin Reed, deputy director of the Satellite Servicing Program Office at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. “Yes, We have the technologies to be able to do it.”
NASA astronauts have been practicing during two Robotic Refueling Missions on the International Space Station in 2011 and 2014, while engineers on the ground at Goddard have been developing new kinds of fuel nozzles, wire-cutters, drills and other robotic tools.
They also built a shiny, gold-foil-covered, 20-foot tall mockup of the Landsat-7 satellite in order to practice docking maneuvers necessary for fueling up in space.
Other technologies being developed include Raven, a laser-guided sensor that gives precise orbital trajectory of approaching objects. That will be key to any kind of in-orbit docking of two relatively small satellites that have to connect a fuel nozzle that can be just an inch or two wide.
Reed sees a future where a NASA service vehicle hopscotches around low-Earth orbit, docking with satellites that need gas or a tune-up. Additional technologies for in-orbit refueling will also be used in parallel with the upcoming Asteroid Redirect Mission, in which NASA hopes to put a lander on an object, pick up a big boulder, and then bring the rock back to Earth. That mission is funded and scheduled to lift off in December 2020.