NASA kicks off robotic refuelling mission at ISS

13 Mar 2012

On 12 July 2011 spacewalking astronauts Mike Fossum and Ron Garan transferred the Robotic Refueling Mission module from the Atlantis shuttle cargo bay to a temporary platform on the International Space Station's Dextre robot. Image courtesy of NASA

As part of a joint effort between NASA and the Canadian Space Agency (CSA), the Robotic Refueling Mission (RRM) has started operations on the International Space Station.

The experiment was launched on the ISS via the Canadian Dextre robot and RRM tools between 7 and 9 March last. The aim of the robotic mission is to demonstrate the technologies, tools and techniques needed to robotically service and refuel satellites in orbit.

The mission also marks the first time that the space station’s Dextre robot has been used for technology research and development. Up to now, it had solely been used for the robotic maintenance of the orbiting superstructure.

Between 7 and 9 March last, the teams at NASA Goddard’s Robotic Lab and Satellite Servicing Center worked with Johnson Space Center robotic operators and moved the ISS’s robotic arm to manipulate tools on RRM.

NASA said that during the task, robot operators at NASA’s Johnson Space Center remotely controlled Dextre to retrieve RRM tools and go through the tasks required to remove representative fittings used on many spacecraft for filling fluids and gases prior to launch.

ISS – a techology test-bed

Frank Cepollina, who led five Hubble Space Telescope servicing missions, and who is now associate director of the Satellite Servicing Capabilities Office (SSCO) at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, said that RRM showcases the best of what the International Space Station can offer as a test-bed for leading-edge space technologies.

He said that the impact of the ISS as a useful technology test-bed could not be overstated. “Fresh satellite-servicing technologies will be demonstrated in a real space environment within months instead of years. This is huge. This represents real progress in space technology advancement.”

Final space shuttle mission – STS-135

RRM was launched to the space station in July 2011 aboard the last space shuttle mission (STS-135). NASA said it is the first in-orbit demonstration to test, prove and advance the technology needed to perform robotic servicing on spacecraft not designed for refuelling and repair.

Over the next two years RRM and Dextre will carry several tasks to demonstrate a wide array of servicing capabilities.

The two space agencies assert that the RRM results are expected to reduce the risks associated with satellite servicing as well as lay the foundation and encourage future robotic servicing missions. Such future missions could include the repair and repositioning of orbiting satellites, said NASA.

“The significance of RRM is that it demonstrates that robotic satellite-servicing technology exists now and it works correctly on orbit,” said Benjamin Reed, deputy project manager of SSCO at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.

SSCO initiated the development of RRM in 2009 by drawing upon 20 years of experience servicing the Hubble Space Telescope. But satellite servicing is not a new phenomenon. NASA’s first space station, Skylab, was repaired in space in 1973.

Carmel Doyle was a long-time reporter with Silicon Republic