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Saving sick satellites

The Canadarm robot has boosted national pride and showcased Canadian technology for more than two decades. In space, the arm emblazoned with a Canada logo and flag first twitched to life aboard a shuttle in 1981. We look back at the arm grabbing errant satellites, helping fix the Hubble telescope and shaking hands with its robotic cousin, Canadarm2.

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NASA's $235-million Solar Max is one sick satellite. Within months of its spring 1980 launch to study solar flares, it blows three fuses. Instruments fail. Solar Max spins through space with three of its seven telescopes unable to produce any scientific data. Enter the crew of the shuttle Challenger, ready for the world's first in-orbit satellite repair job. But their original plan fails, reporter Bronwyn Drainie tells CBC Radio's Quirks and Quarks.

Luckily, there is a backup plan in place. Pivotal to it is the Canadarm. Frank Cepollina of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center explains how the arm reaches into space and grabs Solar Max, pulling it into the shuttle's cargo bay. There, the astronauts repair and release it. Mission accomplished. "Beautiful operation - beautiful!" Cepollina says.
• The original plan would have astronaut George Nelson recapture the satellite using a Manned Maneuvering Unit, a rocket-powered backpack. But Nelson discovered that the tool provided to grapple the satellite didn't work. Mission Commander Robert Crippen then nudged the shuttle close enough to Solar Max so Canadarm could grab it.

• The Canadarm's job wasn't finished once Solar Max was inside the Challenger's payload. It became a work platform for Nelson and fellow space walker James Van Hoften. They were able to work on the satellite with both hands while their feet were securely clamped to the end of the arm. Solar Max was released into orbit the next day.

• During the repairs, Van Hoften lost track of a power screwdriver. It is likely still floating in space.

• Solar Max orbited for another five years after the repair, yielding valuable scientific data on the sun. It flew a total of 2.3 billion kilometres from 1980 to 1989.

• In September 1984, Prime Minister Brian Mulroney boasted to U.S. President Ronald Reagan about the Solar Max rescue during a speech in Washington, D.C. Reagan responded by giving Mulroney an album of photos of the Canadarm being used in space. He also gave the prime minister a plaque containing U.S. and Canadian flags that were flown on the shuttle during missions in which the arm was used.

• The arm's ability to wrangle satellites and help repair them in orbit, or bring them back to earth for servicing, has saved millions of dollars. Such missions also help reduce the number of dead satellites littering space. NASA estimates that there are currently more than 11,000 pieces of "orbital debris" circling the earth.

• The Canadarm grabs errant satellites with the use of human-like hand. The arm's end - called the end effector in space speak - is shaped like a canister. Retracted in the opening are three strong wires. When the arm is told to grab, small motors push the wires inward, creating a snare in the middle. The part of a satellite they grab is a knobbed pin, or grapple.

• The Canadarm that saved Solar Max would later be destroyed with the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger in 1986.
Medium: Radio
Program: Quirks & Quarks
Broadcast Date: Dec. 29, 1984
Guest(s): Frank Cepollina
Reporter: Bronwyn Drainie
Duration: 1:40

Last updated: November 6, 2014

Page consulted on November 6, 2014

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