Dextre, the International Space Station's Canadian robot handyman, is set to demonstrate that satellites can be refuelled and repaired in space using new tools carried by the shuttle Atlantis, set to launch Friday.
Repairs performed by robots could extend the lifespan of satellites used to provide internet and GPS access. Such repairs are becoming increasingly necessary the space around the Earth where satellites orbit gets increasingly crowded, putting them at higher risk of collisions.
The new tools will allow two-armed Dextre to perform satellite refueling and repairs designed to be done by humans on Earth, not robots in space.
"Definitely, one of the objectives of this particular demonstration is to see just how far we can push Dextre," said Mathieu Caron, mission operations manager for the Canadian Space Agency, at a NASA news conference Wednesday. "We're quite looking forward to the demonstration."
Dextre, which became fully operational in 2010, was originally designed for logistics and maintenance on the International Space Station. Up until now, it has only performed tasks designed to be done by robots, such as unloading unmanned cargo spaceships. This is the first time it will be used in a research and development project.
30% chance of Friday launch
As of Wednesday, NASA predicted there was an 80 per cent chance that poor weather would interfere with Atlantis's fuelling, and a 70 per cent chance that the shuttle would be unable to launch Friday as scheduled. Based on the weather forecast, there is a 60 per cent chance the shuttle won't be able to fly Saturday, and a 40 per cent chance it won't be able to launch Sunday either.
When it does take off, Atlantis will be carrying the Robotic Refuelling Mission module, which is designed to demonstrate that satellites can be refuelled and repaired in space. It includes parts identical to those that would be found on a real satellite and the tools to manipulate them, which will be operated by Dextre.
The robot will be controlled remotely by human operators on Earth, guided by cameras attached to the new tools.
NASA hopes that by showing the technology already exists, it will encourage private companies to develop their own space robots, space gas stations and space "tow trucks" to service satellites orbiting the Earth, which already number around 400.
"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," said Frank Cepollina, project manager for NASA's satellite servicing capabilities office.
He noted that 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," he added.
Satellites are typically not designed to be serviced in space. They are built with valves, caps, hoses, and connections that aren't easily manipulated by robots. Dextre's new tools, which were demonstrated at the news conference Wednesday, are designed to deal with such parts.
Caron said the robot 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.