NASA Tests New Robotic Refueling Hardware on International Space Station

Refueling and repairing satellites in orbit could drastically lower costs, and NASA is working to make it happen

2 min read
NASA Tests New Robotic Refueling Hardware on International Space Station
Photo: NASA

Sending up one satellite is expensive. Sending up another satellite to replace the first satellite when it breaks is even more expensive. It would be crazy to junk your car every time it needs a new tank of gas, but that’s basically what we do with satellites right now, and it’s incredibly wasteful. NASA has an entire office dedicated to fixing this problem, called the Satellite Servicing Capabilities Office (SSCO), and last week, they tested out some new robotic hardware for on-orbit satellite repair up on the International Space Station.

Back in 2013, NASA tested hardware and teleoperation techniques to tranfer liquids in space, a necessary first step towards satellite refueling (even of satellites that weren’t designed to be refueled). After a few years off, testing is resuming this year, with a new inspection tool painfully acronymed VIPIR, for Visual Inspection Poseable Invertebrate Robot. VIPIR is a modular camera system that can be grabbed by DEXTRE, the robotic arm that lives on the ISS, and used to inspect things with an array of three different cameras, including a 34-inch long articulating borescope. This video shows the borescope in action; if you stick around until the end, you can see it crawl out of the end of the obstacle course:

“We envision a future where robots, outfitted with a caddy stocked with tools, can help satellite owners diagnose and deliver timely aid to their spacecraft – ultimately extending their service lives,” says Frank Cepollina, veteran leader of the five servicing missions to the Hubble Space Telescope, and current associate director of the Satellite Servicing Capabilities Office. “Each task that RRM demonstrates gives NASA and the fledgling satellite-servicing community the confidence that these capabilities are real, that the technologies are proven, and that they can eventually work on a subsequent mission.”

Inspection is critical for fixing problems on active satellites, but even if the problem can’t be fixed, inspecting dead satellites could identify failure points, leading to more reliable designs.

When we visited NASA Goddard last month, we got to play around with some of the hardware that NASA will be using for additional satellite servicing tasks. Here’s a 3D printed mockup of what a servicing satellite might look like, with access to a whole set of different tools that it can pick up and operate with its arm:


The arm grabs onto those diamond-shaped protrustions, and pull whichever tool it needs out of its bay. The available tools include a wirecutter, multifunction tool, safety cap tool, and fuel nozzle and valve adapters for fuel transfers. This box, with all the tools, is currently set up outside of the ISS so that the DEXTRE arm can access all of them for testing. Here’s a closeup of one of the tools for scale:


As far as the Robotic Refueling Mission ISS testing goes, later this year, additional tasks will be completed to see how effective the robotic harware is at prepping spacecraft for cryogen replenishment, and for making basic electrical connections that could allow instruments to be upgraded or replaced completely.

[ SSCO ]

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Robot with threads near a fallen branch

RoMan, the Army Research Laboratory's robotic manipulator, considers the best way to grasp and move a tree branch at the Adelphi Laboratory Center, in Maryland.

Evan Ackerman

This article is part of our special report on AI, “The Great AI Reckoning.

"I should probably not be standing this close," I think to myself, as the robot slowly approaches a large tree branch on the floor in front of me. It's not the size of the branch that makes me nervous—it's that the robot is operating autonomously, and that while I know what it's supposed to do, I'm not entirely sure what it will do. If everything works the way the roboticists at the U.S. Army Research Laboratory (ARL) in Adelphi, Md., expect, the robot will identify the branch, grasp it, and drag it out of the way. These folks know what they're doing, but I've spent enough time around robots that I take a small step backwards anyway.

The robot, named RoMan, for Robotic Manipulator, is about the size of a large lawn mower, with a tracked base that helps it handle most kinds of terrain. At the front, it has a squat torso equipped with cameras and depth sensors, as well as a pair of arms that were harvested from a prototype disaster-response robot originally developed at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory for a DARPA robotics competition. RoMan's job today is roadway clearing, a multistep task that ARL wants the robot to complete as autonomously as possible. Instead of instructing the robot to grasp specific objects in specific ways and move them to specific places, the operators tell RoMan to "go clear a path." It's then up to the robot to make all the decisions necessary to achieve that objective.

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