WASHINGTON – NASA said Wednesday (March 14) it has successfully demonstrated the ability to repair satellites in orbit using robotic tools.
An experiment about the International Space Station last week demonstrated the ability of Canada’s robotic arm to perform what the space agency called “precise satellite-serving tasks in space.” NASA also touted the demonstration as a milestone for using the space station as a technology test bed.
In a statement, NASA said the Canadian Space Agency’s 12-foot (3.7-meter) Dextre robotic arm was able to repair an external space station module. The experiment demonstrated the ability to use robotic tools to refuel and repair orbiting satellites.
Before launch, technicians pump fuel into satellites through a valve that is then sealed and covered. NASA said the space station experiment that ran from March 7-9 demonstrated that the remote-controlled robotic arm could remove a cover and seal on a space station module similar to those used on satellites.
Canada's Dextre robotic arm on the International Space Station
According to NASA, “Dextre successfully retrieved and inspected [module] tools, released safety launch locks on tool adapters, and used an [module] tool to cut extremely thin satellite lock wire.” The robotic arm succeeded in cutting two separate “lock wires” 20 thousands of an inch (0.5 millimeters) in diameter using a special wire cutter tool. The tool was then used to severe the wires with only a few millimeters of clearance.
“This wire-cutting activity is a prerequisite to removing and servicing various satellite parts during any future in-orbit missions,” the space agency said.
The refueling demonstration will be completed in May when the robotic arm completes the removal of the gas fittings.
NASA officials predicted that the successful repair demonstration could lead to future robotic missions, including repairs, refueling and repositioning of satellites.
Growing concerns about space junk have prompted NASA and other space agencies to come up with new ways to decommission satellites before they fall back to Earth. In February, the Swiss Space Center announced its CleanSpace One project
intended to begin cleaning up some of the “space junk” orbiting the Earth.
Collisions between space debris and satellites could worsen the problem.
NASA estimates there are about 19,000 objects larger than 10 cm orbiting the Earth.