Are Upgradable Satellites the Future of Space Exploration?3 min read

Space robots. Could they be the final frontier of space exploration?

It sounds like a kid’s TV show from the ’80s, but space robots are the next reality for the flourishing marriage between technology and space. What exactly will these robots do, and what do they promise?

Currently, satellites are shipped off into space, and engineers hope they’re built to last. Satellites get launched, and that’s that — no new parts or shiny gizmos. When they die, they die. Engineers now want to make a “doctor” space robot to service them, and that’s not the Time Lord kind of doctor. Sounds economical and environmentally friendly, but pros and cons exist for what NASA and Darpa plan to do.

NASA and Darpa Plans for Space Bots

NASA and Darpa head up two programs that aim to service satellites in space. NASA’s Restore-L launches in the mid-2020s, while Darpa’s RSGS takes its shot into space in 2021.

NASA’s Restore-L is billed as a peaceful program with a goal for servicing satellites, with bots produced by Space Systems Loral (SSL) in Palo Alto, California. The space bot doc comes equipped with robotic dexterous arms, a toolkit, autonomous navigation and propellant to fuel up spacecraft out of gas.

The program’s promo video reveals two robotic arms carefully approaching another spacecraft in trouble. One limb pulls the satellite closer while the other refuels the tank. The patient gets released from the space bot doc, and both return to their duties in space. A future demo will take place with the Landsat-7 satellite.

Darpa’s RSGS, known as the Robotic Servicing of Geosynchronous Satellites, conducts house calls in space with its robotic servicing vehicle (RSV). Like a more modern colonial period doctor, the space bot will travel to service and repair satellites. First, the RSV circles the satellite to gather 3D data and pulls up next to the satellite to repair it using a built-in toolkit, with software and hardware. The initiative may lower the cost and risk of satellites and other infrastructures operating in geosynchronous orbit (GSO).

RSGS uses seed money from the government to fuel the initiative, but the vehicle is provided by SSL. RSGS is on track for its 2021 debut since making its recent partnership to service at least 20 government and commercial spacecraft in GSO.

SSL will operate the vehicle and open up cooperative servicing to commercial and military GSO satellite owners in a fee-for-service agreement. While the RSGS RSV operates, the government gains a reduced price for servicing of its own satellites and access to the resulting data.

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Service Space Bots Pose Complications

Because space is so transparent, countries that launch their satellites assume everyone will play fair, and that’s worked out OK so far given the current problems of the world. However, that could quickly change, much like the threats of nuclear power and nuclear war down here on the ground.

A servicing space bot that scoots right up beside another orbiting satellite and Frankensteins it back to life could also ambush it and take it apart like a greedy car salesman. Technology is on the rise, and if you can’t keep up, your satellites get slaughtered.

NASA’s space robots would do more than repair and refuel. Restore-L could pioneer the way for manufacturing centers and refueling stations, as well as clean up dangerous space debris. Over 14,000 old rocket parts and junk orbit the planet, along with more than 4,6000 satellites. The U.S. contributed most of the debris, with Russia taking second place and China in third.

The space race can quickly turn more political, but not cleaning up the debris in space also poses complications. Cluttered space leads to more collisions and produces a runaway effect that means people couldn’t leave the planet.

So much for science fiction saving the day again. Welcome to science reality. If you were hoping for terraforming another planet to escape from the effects of global warming, we’d need to escape the junkyard outside the planet first.

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Megan Ray Nichols

Megan Ray Nichols Freelance Writer schooledbyscience.com

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