The Dextre robot performs a Robotic Refueling Mission task last June outside the International Space Station. Image source: NASA.
As part of yesterday's orbiter Atlantis festivities at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex, NASA had representatives from several programs that don't get much media attention (in an era where NASA gets almost no media attention anyway).
I chatted with three representatives from the Satellite Servicing Capabilities Office out of Goddard Space Flight Center. They were promoting an upcoming Robotic Refueling Mission (RRM) technology demonstration on the International Space Station.
According to the RRM home page:
America has seen NASA land on the moon, fix the Hubble Space Telescope and roam on Mars' landscape—but they have yet to see NASA robotically refuel and repair a satellite that was never designed to be serviced in space. The Robotic Refueling Mission is the first step to making routine robotic servicing on orbit a reality.
Robotic refueling is challenging. Before a satellite leaves the ground, its technicians fill its fuel tank through a valve that is then triple-sealed and covered with a protective blanket—designed never to be accessed again.
RRM paves the way for a future robotic servicing mission by demonstrating that a remote-controlled robot can overcome these obstacles to service and refuel a satellite on orbit. RRM will also prove other robotic servicing tasks during its two years of operations.
The technology demonstration, using the station's Dextre robot, should occur in the next few weeks.
An October 2012 NASA article detailed Kennedy Space Center's role in this experiment.
According to Tom Aranyos, technical integration manager in NASA's Fluids and Propulsion Division at Kennedy, engineers at the Florida spaceport are supporting the hypergolic propellant refueling portion of the Goddard-led study examining how free-flying servicing spacecraft could expand options in orbit for government and commercial satellite owners.
"America depends on satellites in geosynchronous orbit," said Aranyos. "These expensive spacecraft eventually develop systems failures or run out of propellant. Servicing and refueling these satellites can keep them operating longer and in the correct orbit, giving the nation and their owners more value for their investment."