Astronauts, robots and the history of fixing and building things in space
by Vanessa Lloyd for GSFC News
Greenbelt MD (SPX) Apr 24, 2020
A 30th birthday is a big milestone for anyone, and a spacecraft is no exception. Tomorrow, the Hubble Space Telescope celebrates its 30th year in space, but it didn't get to this point without having to overcome its fair share of challenges. Over the years, it has not only been fixed, but continuously upgraded to make it the discovery-producing machine that it is today. Servicing (refueling, fixing and upgrading) spacecraft helps make spaceflight more sustainable, affordable and resilient. In honor of Hubble's exciting milestone, here's a look back at how human and robotic satellite servicing became a reality and a glimpse at where we're headed.
Where We've Been
Solar Maximum Mission Repair
Unlike Skylab, SolarMax's parts were designed to be easily replaced and upgraded, like how a LEGO fits into another LEGO. In 1984, astronauts on space shuttle mission STS-41C were able to successfully remove and replace the faulty attitude control system module in orbit, supporting the case for modular design and laying the groundwork for future satellite servicing missions.
Hubble Servicing Missions
Between 1993 and 2009, astronauts not only fixed Hubble, but installed a series of ever more capable scientific instruments reflecting the evolution of technology on Earth. With the help of the five crewed servicing missions, Hubble has been the most productive science apparatus in human history - one that continues to unveil mysteries of the universe, 30 years after it launched to space.
Where We Are
Robotic Refueling Missions 1 and 2
To test and advance refueling technologies, NASA launched Robotic Refueling Missions 1 and 2 in 2011 and 2014, respectively. The two successful proof-of-concept missions practiced cutting wire, removing caps and more from outside of the International Space Station, demonstrating tools and techniques necessary for in-space refueling.
Robotic Refueling Mission 3
Storing cryogens in space can be difficult because their extremely low boiling points cause them to boil off over time if the temperature cannot be maintained. RRM3's four-month storage of 42 liters (more than 11 gallons) of liquid methane represents the longest-ever storage of such a large amount of cryogenic fluid in space with zero boil off. In addition to this storage, RRM3 recently demonstrated operations of its three primary robotic tools.
Mission Extension Vehicle
When docked to its client satellite, the fuel-carrying spacecraft provides attitude control to maintain orbital position and maneuvering. Unlike Hubble, which was designed to be serviced, Intelsat was, like the vast majority of other satellites, designed to live its life in space alone.
Where We're Going
On-Orbit Servicing Assembly and Manufacturing (OSAM)
OSAM-1 (formerly known as Restore-L) is developing a suite of technologies that could act as a full-service mechanic and mobile refueling station for satellites. OSAM-1 will blend various technologies practiced by previous missions, including dexterous robotic arms, specialized tools and more. The capabilities will establish the basis for in-space robotic repairs and upgrades, developing the ability to make a satellite better than it was before.
NASA has previously demonstrated assembly in space by separately launching components of the International Space Station and attaching them over the years to construct the orbiting laboratory we know today where for almost 20 years, humans have lived and worked continuously, advancing scientific knowledge and demonstrating new technologies, making research breakthroughs not possible on Earth. That assembly process required astronauts conducting spacewalks to assemble and maintain the station. Fully robotic assembly is the next piece of the assembly puzzle.
The same robotic technologies that would allow a servicer spacecraft to catch up to and grasp a satellite, operate a suite of specialized tools to perform precision tasks and finally refuel a satellite, could also be used to connect smaller parts in space to assemble a structure much larger than a single rocket can loft. To this end, NASA and Maxar Technologies will assemble a large antenna via the Space Infrastructure Dexterous Robot (SPIDER), which is a part of the OSAM-1 mission. SPIDER will also demonstrate autonomous in-space manufacturing, creating a 30-foot long boom with onboard materials.
OSAM-1 is one of multiple planned NASA technology demonstration missions to bring key robotic technologies to operational status. OSAM-2 (formerly known as Archinaut One) will be another demonstration, a NASA partnership with Made In Space, Inc., and will use additive manufacturing to build large-scale structures in space.
Being able to launch the components of a large, deep-space telescope separately and assemble them in space can break the current constraint of telescopes needing to be small enough to fit on a single launch vehicle. Technologies demonstrated by OSAM are laying the groundwork for in-space assembled observatories to peer deeper into our universe and possibly find life beyond Earth.
From its beginnings with Skylab, to robotic refueling demonstrations on the International Space Station, in-space servicing, assembly and manufacturing continues to evolve. Hubble's immense success and 30th anniversary are a testament to what we can accomplish with the help of satellite servicing.
Recent and upcoming demonstrations challenge the notion that a satellite's lifespan is finite, even one that was not designed to be refueled or repaired. Once matured and operational, this capability promises to usher in a new era of spaceflight and make what was once thought to be impossible, a reality.
Intelsat 901 Satellite Returns to Service Using Northrop Grumman's Mission Extension Vehicle
Dulles VA (SPX) Apr 20, 2020
Intelsat announced Friday that Intelsat 901 has returned to service following the successful docking with the first Mission Extension Vehicle (MEV-1) from Northrop Grumman Corporation and the company's wholly-owned subsidiary, SpaceLogistics LLC, on February 25 - the first time that two commercial spacecraft docked in geostationary orbit. Since the February rendezvous, MEV-1 has assumed navigation of the combined spacecraft stack reducing its inclination by 1.6 degrees and relocating IS-901 to its ... read more
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