NASA’s Robotic Fueling Demo Points to a Bright Satellite Servicing Future

Over the past few years several organizations such as MDA, DARPA and NASA have been providing the commercial satellite industry insights into the possibilities of extending the life of a Satellite nearing End of Life (EOL) after serving its intended life in the Geosynchronous orbit.

NASA’s report on its recent successful Robotic Refueling Mission (RRM) highlighted six historic days of operations aboard the International Space Station.  NASA’s Robotic Refueling Mission, or RRM, demonstrated conclusively that remotely controlled robots using current-day technology could successfully refuel satellites not designed to be serviced (which includes all satellites currently in GEO).  While the Orbital Express (OE) mission demonstrated fluid transfer between “cooperatively-designed” vehicles in 2007, the NASA demonstration took the next critical “reality” step.

Here’s a video from NASA on the RRM’s success:

Intelsat General Corporation has been an active participant along with other companies in the study of refueling capabilities.  Every satellite operator continues to be faced with satellites reaching end of life (EOL) and Intelsat is no exception with 54 Satellite in orbit and many new satellites planned to be launched in the coming years. 

NASA’s robotic fluid transfer sent a strong signal to the satellite industry that refueling satellites already in orbit is viable. This could be a catalyst to expand robotic satellite-servicing capabilities which would lead to a greener, more sustainable space.

“With the successful Demonstration, NASA also hopes that RRM technologies may help boost the commercial satellite-servicing industry. RRM gives NASA and the emerging commercial satellite servicing industry the confidence to robotically refuel, repair and maintain satellites in both near and distant orbits — well beyond the reach of where humans can go today,” said Frank Cepollina, associate director of the Satellite Servicing Capabilities Office (SSCO) at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, MD.

Servicing capabilities could greatly expand options for government and commercial fleet operators in the future, potentially delivering stakeholders significant savings in spacecraft replacement and launch costs. RRM will probably be considered as a disruptive technology because the concept and reality disrupt the accepted fact that a GEO satellite must be decommissioned at the end of its as-launched propellant reserves.  RRM would challenge years of common practice and predictably has its share of detractors.

On January 15, NASA released a Request for Information to seek input on a potential public-private partnership to make possible a full scale demonstration of RRM. This conceptual Restore Mission would potentially perform servicing operations in orbit by 2018. The entire space ecosystem would benefit from the development of this game changing technology.

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