Robots Fixing Satellites: The Future of Deep Orbital Maintenance?
Erin Green posted on November 10, 2015 |
Robot with two “eyes” part of ISS mission to service satellites in distant orbits.

NASA may soon have its own version of an astromech droid like R2D2.

VIPIR features a set of cameras that enable it to

VIPIR features a set of cameras that enable it to "see" and zoom in on its work. (Image courtesy of NASA/Chris Gunn.)

The Visual Inspection Poseable Invertebrate Robot (VIPIR) is being put to the test on the International Space Station (ISS). It is the latest addition to the ISS mission to discover ways to service and refuel satellites in distant orbits.

Satellite servicing isn’t a new concept. The Solar Max mission needed an emergency repair in 1984 and the Hubble Space Telescope has required a grand total of five servicing missions over the years.

The difference with VIPIR is that its focus will not be on servicing satellites placed in low-Earth orbit.

It is designed to operate on satellites in orbits as far away as the Sun-Earth Lagrangian points. These points are areas of space where the gravitational orbit around the sun and Earth are stable. For example, the second Sun-Earth Lagrangian point (SEL2), where the James Webb Space Telescope will reside, is approximately one million miles away from Earth.

VIPIR: Made for Distant Orbits

VIPIR is an articulating borescope designed to give its operator a full field of vision when working on a satellite.

It operates along the same principles as drone technology. A technician on the ground operates the robot with a joystick and controls to diagnose and repair issues and perform service.

Unlike most borescopes, it is equipped with a twin set of lenses to let it “see” what it is doing. The secondary lens amplifies the field of vision with a motorized zoom capacity for detailed work.

This will enable it to perform tasks such as troubleshooting anomalies and investigating micrometeoroid strikes, in addition to its teleoperated satellite repair jobs.

The Need for Robotic Servicing

Satellites in distant orbits are much more difficult to service than those in low-Earth orbits. Many, especially those for the telecommunications industry, are considered single-use satellites and are allowed to drift out of orbit after depleting fuel supplies. They are then replaced with another expensive satellite which will eventually meet the same fate.

This new robotic technology will service and refuel these distant orbit satellites, keeping them in use and potentially reducing replacement costs significantly.

It will also enable researchers to send new astrophysics satellite missions which require refueling and maintenance into more distant orbits for greater observation of the cosmos.

Goddard engineer Michael Kienlen (left) and SSCO deputy project manager Benjamin Reed with a mockup of the RRM now deployed aboard the ISS. (Image courtesy of NASA/Chris Gunn.)

Goddard engineer Michael Kienlen (left) and SSCO deputy project manager Benjamin Reed with a mockup of the RRM now deployed aboard the ISS. (Image courtesy of NASA/Chris Gunn.)

Developing the Technology

VIPIR is still in its second testing phase aboard the ISS and will be used with NASA’s Robotic Refueling Mission (RRM). RRM also features a two-armed “handyman” robot named Dextre from the Canadian Space Agency.

NASA hopes that the tests being conducted with VIPIR and Dextre will show how distant orbit satellites could soon be repaired and refueled entirely by robots.

“It’s not like we have to reinvent the wheel. We have never stopped developing servicing technologies,” said Julie Crooke, a Goddard Space Flight Center engineer and astrophysics technical manager. “With appropriate technology investments, we are on a clear path to demonstrating a servicing capability far from low-Earth orbit.”

For more information, check out the ISS website.

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