Robotic refuelling of spacecraft to be a reality soon
Posted on Mar 06 2014 | IANS
Washington, March 6 : The advanced robotic satellite refuelling and maintenance technologies are not a wild dream of the future any more.
NASA has successfully concluded a remotely-controlled test of new technologies that would empower future space robots to transfer hazardous oxidiser -- a type of propellant -- into the tanks of satellites in space.
The robotic refuelling technologies would equip robots and humans with the tools and capabilities needed for spacecraft maintenance and repair, the assembly of large space telescopes and extended human exploration, NASA said.
In this direction, the Satellite Servicing Capabilities Office (SSCO) at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, has completed Remote Robotic Oxidizer Transfer Test (RROxiTT).
"This is the first time that anyone has tested this type of technology, and we have proven that it works. It is ready for the next step to flight," said Frank Cepollina, associate director of SSCO.
The SSCO team devised the ground-based RROxiTT to test how robots can transfer hazardous oxidiser at flight-like pressures and flow rates, through the propellant valve and into the mock tank of a satellite.
Oxidiser -- namely nitrogen tetroxide -- is a chemical that when mixed with satellite fuel causes instant combustion that provides thrust (motion) for a satellite.
The liquid is contained within a satellite tank at intense pressures. Toxic, extremely corrosive and compressed, it requires special handling.
While this capability could be applied to spacecraft in multiple orbits, SSCO focused RROxiTT specifically on technologies that could help satellites traveling the busy space highway of geosynchronous earth orbit (GEO).
Located about 35,200 km above earth, this orbital path is home to more than 400 satellites, many of which beam communications, television and weather data to customers worldwide, said a NASA release.
The team is also gearing up for the next phase of the robotic refueling mission on the International Space Station (ISS).
"By developing robotic capabilities to repair and refuel GEO satellites, 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," explained Benjamin Reed, deputy project manager of SSCO.
NASA also hopes these new technologies would help boost the commercial satellite-servicing industry that is rapidly gaining momentum.
"Sustainable space development is not only good stewardship of the shared resource of outer space but it also makes sense as we develop the skill set to embark humans deeper into our solar system," concluded Reed.