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Space Science

Orbital Express Launches Tonight 137

Posted by CowboyNeal
from the packed-its-bags-last-night dept.
airshowfan writes "When a geosynchronous satellite is launched into space, no human ever gets to touch it again. This means that, other than for minor software issues, there is no way to fix it if it breaks, so it has to work perfectly, almost autonomously, for 20 years non-stop. There is also no way to refuel it once it's out of thruster fuel, the reason why it can't last more than 20 years even if it gets to that mark working very well, with batteries and solar cells still going, which is often the case. If only there were a robotic spacecraft in geostationary orbit that could change broken satellite components and refuel those older satellites, then satellites would be a lot less risky and would last a lot longer. Does this robotic spacecraft mechanic sound like science fiction? It launches tonight."
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Orbital Express Launches Tonight

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  • Good ol' 45th Space Wing...
    • Re: (Score:1, Insightful)

      by Anonymous Coward
      "There is also no way to refuel it once it's out of thruster fuel, the reason why it can't last more than 20 years even if it gets to that mark working very well, with batteries and solar cells still going, which is often the case."

      Thanks slashdot, for one of the most grotesque and ambiguous run-on sentences I have seen in a damn long time.

      PS 3 anonymous.
      • Re:Woot (Score:5, Funny)

        by porl (932021) on Thursday March 08, 2007 @11:41PM (#18285314)
        Sometimes run-on sentences are not as bad as some people think, although there are definitely times when they would be correct in saying that run-on sentences are 'grotesque' or 'ambiguous' (these are, of course, both subjective terms, and should be treated as such), but these thoughts are not the only thoughts that can be had of run-on sentences, and you should not assume that everyone else believes that run-on sentences are grotesque and ambiguous, because other people have feelings too and you shouldn't assume that your opinion is more important than theirs, because they might think otherwise, and that is how arguments start.
    • Re:Woot (Score:5, Interesting)

      by DoraLives (622001) on Thursday March 08, 2007 @11:54PM (#18285416)
      Pretty shoot.

      Watched it from the driveway of the house here in South Patrick Shores.

      Clear as a bell, and the lox/kerosene flame of the first stage was a beautiful brilliant orange coming out of the engine, tapering away to a bluish tip. It arced into the cloudless sky and went right between the two endmost bowl stars of the little dipper as I watched through binoculars. Not much rumble. Along toward the end of the first stage burn, it started emitting these pale streamers of exhaust that flared out far away from the bright light of the engine. Very beautiful. And then at MECO, a rapidly widening black circle seemed to emanate from where the doused flame was a split second before, and then grew and expanded till it gobbled up the last little bit of the streamers. Weird effect. Never seen one do anything quite like that before. After a short pause, another puff of gas, and then the RL-10 kicked into gear as a star-like pinpoint of white light. With the northern launch azimuth, the apparent motion across the sky slowed down to a crawl as the slowly fading pinpoint seemed to drift horizonward in ever-increasingly slow motion. Finally lost it visually somewhere around T-plus nine or ten minutes, just over the roof of the house. By then it was getting out there, more or less a thousand miles away from where I leaned against my car in the driveway to help steady the binocs.

      Like I said earlier, "Pretty shoot."
      • I agree - it was quite nice, although I was watching it from 40 miles west in Seminole County. It seemed to take forever getting off the pad without the benefit of SRBs. The staging was a bit difficult to see through the haze, and I could just barely make out the second stage ignition as a dim white star.

        Being the true geek I am, I went back in and watched the webcast for another 40 minutes as the launch vehicle proceeded to spew satellites all over the place. :-)
  • by Original Replica (908688) on Thursday March 08, 2007 @08:31PM (#18283674) Journal
    where did they find the hot cyclops to pilot it?
  • by User 956 (568564)
    Does this robotic spacecraft mechanic sound like science fiction?

    From science fiction? I suppose I say if they are not, someone will say they Are Too.
  • Someone must have missed all those Hubble missions.
  • Breakdown (Score:3, Funny)

    by ishamael69 (590041) on Thursday March 08, 2007 @08:33PM (#18283690)
    But, what happens when the "robotic spacecraft mechanic" breaks down?
  • and where does it get it's spares from when they run out - or it needs fixing?
  • by dgatwood (11270)

    The fuel has to come from somewhere. Repairing satellites is one thing. Refueling them is something else entirely.

    • by Goaway (82658) on Thursday March 08, 2007 @08:42PM (#18283800) Homepage
      Oh man, they must have totally forgotten about that! Good thing you caught it in time, there's still a chance to stop the launch!
      • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

        It's not a "OMG they must have forgotten about that", it's a "I would like to know how they will handle that".
        It seems most likely they will keep firing up expendable refuelers with most of its payload being fuel. A simple maneuverable fuel tank that could refuel a more long-lived and advanced refueler craft. Short of having a space tube or manufacturing fuel in space, they will need to shoot up a rocket to get the fuel up there anyway.
        That's all rather far into the future, anyway. These seem to be just pre
    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by zaydana (729943)

      I'm guessing one of the satellites has a tank containing excess fuel on board, just like a tanker truck will have a fuel tank and the big tank on the back.

      Refueling in space isn't really that hard unless you are using cryogenic propellants. And in this case, the satellites use hydrazine, so its all good. I can't wait till somebody gets cryogenic propellant transfer working, because that will have so many more uses than what you can do with hydrazine.

      • by Rakishi (759894)

        Refueling in space isn't really that hard unless you are using cryogenic propellants. And in this case, the satellites use hydrazine, so its all good. I can't wait till somebody gets cryogenic propellant transfer working, because that will have so many more uses than what you can do with hydrazine.
        Do they even use cryogenic fuel on non-short term sats? I'd assume that they wouldn't hold out very well when talking about years of sitting in a tank.
        • by zaydana (729943)

          IANARS (I am not a rocket scientist), but I doubt they'd really use cryogenic fuel at all on most sats. Its way too complex. The uses I was referring to are more in the human spaceflight area, or where you need a higher ISP, or where you need to please the greenies (its going to happen one day). The type of stuff that we can't really do today that due to the weight of fuel at launch, which would be made way cheaper once you can launch propellant on a separate rocket.

    • Re: (Score:1, Interesting)

      by Anonymous Coward
      The short-term answer goes something like this: The payload on this launch is around 3500 lb of which maybe 500 lb is propellant. If this works the next load might be 500lb of parts (mostly batteries), and 3000lb of fuel. I reckon that is enough to refurbish about 21,000 lb of equipment or 5 launches worth. So the whole mess pays for itself after almost immediately. In the medium term you could do fancier things like field upgrades and stripping obsolete or dead equipment for parts and supplies.
    • by FleaPlus (6935)
      The fuel has to come from somewhere. Repairing satellites is one thing. Refueling them is something else entirely.

      Huh? If anything, refueling is easier than repairing. Refueling is a process which can be potentially automated and can be standardized. Repairing almost certainly requires human intervention, and every repair problem has a different solution.
      • by Talchas (954795)
        But repairs may not need any items from earth (we can hope) - just moving parts around + stuff. The fuel has to get up there, whether its inside the normal satellite or the repair satellite, and the energy cost is the same either way. It still could help, as if you launch one with fuel for many sats, it could extend their lifetimes a lot, but unlike with repairing it won't save as much fuel.
  • modular (Score:3, Interesting)

    by mastershake_phd (1050150) on Thursday March 08, 2007 @08:38PM (#18283758) Homepage
    Wouldnt all satellites need to be modular and use similar components that are compatible to take advantage of this?
    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by susano_otter (123650)

      Wouldnt all satellites need to be modular and use similar components that are compatible to take advantage of this?

      Indeed. But there's no point in building modular satellites out of similar components until after you've mastered the relevant refeuling and reparing technologies. Test missions like this one help us to figure out which modules and which components work best for this sort of thing. This isn't about fixing or refueling existing satellites at all. It's about how our whole approach to satellite

  • by QuantumG (50515) * <qg@biodome.org> on Thursday March 08, 2007 @08:38PM (#18283760) Homepage Journal
    A visionary with a bit of get up and go. His book MOONRUSH is not only a great technical work where he outlines a theoretically sound argument for commercial exploitation of the Moon and how to do it, but is also a great visionary and inspirational work. Hopefully Orbital Express will prove that he's capable of following through.
  • by TubeSteak (669689) on Thursday March 08, 2007 @08:40PM (#18283782) Journal

    "I think it' extremely valuable for the entire space arena," [USAF Lt. Col. Fred Kennedy, project manager for Orbital Express] said of Orbital Express' goal, adding that the mission could help ease the stringent requirements of long-life satellites. "Maybe you can accept a level of imperfection that will allow you to go up later and perform upgrades and perform repairs, and put more propellant onboard to get the job done. That will be a sea change in the way we do business."
    Dude, wtf?
    This is rocket science, not something you'd patch with Windows Update.

    Which is more expensive:
    A) Build the satellite correctly the first time around
    B) Build the satellite cheaply & then pay to get it fixed in orbit

    I know which is better for Lt. Col. Fred Kennedy's bottom line.
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by susano_otter (123650)
      "The perfect is the enemy of the good."

      A good geostationary satellite and a good refuel/repair satbot may be cheaper than a near-perfect satellite and no repairbot.
    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by minus_273 (174041)

      "I think it' extremely valuable for the entire space arena," [USAF Lt. Col. Fred Kennedy, project manager for Orbital Express] said of Orbital Express' goal, adding that the mission could help ease the stringent requirements of long-life satellites. "Maybe you can accept a level of imperfection that will allow you to go up later and perform upgrades and perform repairs, and put more propellant onboard to get the job done. That will be a sea change in the way we do business."

      Dude, wtf?
      This is rocket science, not something you'd patch with Windows Update.

      Which is more expensive:
      A) Build the satellite correctly the first time around
      B) Build the satellite cheaply and QUICKLY ; then pay to get it fixed in orbit

      I know which is better for Lt. Col. Fred Kennedy's bottom line.

      there i fixed it for you

    • by QuantumG (50515) *
      Yeah, cause it's not like it is expensive to build something "correctly the first time".. sheesh.
      • The dominant cost in launching is fuel. If you make two trips you end up paying a lot more than any potential design savings.
        • by QuantumG (50515) *
          The dominate cost of satellite manufacture is design. Period. Launch costs don't even come close.

          Not to mention the fact that fixing many failures in satellites wont even require a second launch.. the repair satellite sits in orbit until it is needed. Sure, refueling the repair satellite requires a launch, but not the same rated launch as a satellite.. you just need a dumb unreliable, but economical booster to lob up fuel and, maybe, spare parts. And, even then, the repair satellite uses ion engines to
    • by Sean Riordan (611520) <riordan...sean@@@gmail...com> on Thursday March 08, 2007 @09:17PM (#18284076)
      All of the 'long life' birds take a dozen or more years and ludicrous amounts of money to build. They are basically archaic tech before they leave the integration highbay, much less the launch pad.

      The small, relatively inexpensive short lifespan spacecraft are fairly current as far as technology goes and still very viable. Being able to perform minor repairs on orbit extends that capability a good bit. The more important factor is the prerequisite of standard parts and a small number of standard and modular buses which will cut the development time way down and drop costs. Since the first Plug'n'Play type satellite is already in development, we should start seeing this as a viable option in a few years.
    • This is rocket science, not something you'd patch with Windows Update.

      I don't know about comsats, etc, but many space probes and rovers have had their software patched repeatedly to improve capabilities and work around hardware problems. The best example was Galileo, where the high gain antenna failed to deploy properly and new compression algorithms were uploaded to get the most out of the low gain antenna.

      • It's probably safe to say most everything in orbit with the ability to upload software updates has had software updates. That is just how things go.
      • There's never a good reason to launch dead mass on a satellite. But the economics of repair in space are just not worth it, unless the repair (or refuel-don't count fuel mass,it's not wasted mass, if it can be done) satellite mass is a small fraction of the destination satellite.

        Also, in most cases you are better off launching a next-gen satellite than trying to repair an older one. By next-gen, I don't necessarily mean bleeding edge, untested technology, I typically mean reliable technology made light

        • by Alex Belits (437) *

          But the economics of repair in space are just not worth it, unless the repair (or refuel-don't count fuel mass,it's not wasted mass, if it can be done) satellite mass is a small fraction of the destination satellite.

          This is very important. Satellite design and launch are costly -- design takes time and launch requires large amount of fuel and other materials. Building the satellite is nothing compared to those costs. So if the alternatives are to replace the satellite with its exact copy plus/minus some err

      • by Iron Condor (964856) on Thursday March 08, 2007 @10:02PM (#18284562)

        The best example was Galileo, where the high gain antenna failed to deploy properly and new compression algorithms were uploaded to get the most out of the low gain antenna.

        Actually the best example is probably Cassini, which was launched without any viable software in the orbiter at all. Because everybody knew there were going to be seven years of coasting time to Saturn and there was no point at all in spending a whole lot of effort on writing software before the launch. Software is something you can upload later.

        • that sounds like a risky strategy, not having the software before the hardware is frozen could leave you easilly running out of some hardware rescource that you didn't realise the need for before you wrote the software.

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by Skuld-Chan (302449)
      Anyone who has actually worked with a satellite (and not just watching TV) and I've worked with a few (mostly leo) knows that satellite's have lots of bugs, some fail within the first few orbits because of charging defects. I've worked with satellites that have dead transponders (sometimes on more than one band), poor/wobbly orbits etc.

      The thing that keeps a lot of these satellites operational though is they have extremely flexible software and hardware, and backup systems to help solve issues operators are
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by FleaPlus (6935)

      Which is more expensive:
      A) Build the satellite correctly the first time around
      B) Build the satellite cheaply & then pay to get it fixed in orbit


      I'm not so sure things are as clear as you're suggesting. Extreme redundancy and quality assurance costs a lot. I'm sure there are many circumstances where option B is cheaper.
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by Nyeerrmm (940927)
      It's not a matter of being correct or incorrect, it's a matter of tolerances, precision, and risk management.

      Any time you build a satellite, you're just hedging your bets. It could get blown up on launch (there's a finite chance of that, say ~5%, but thats just a guess, but i know its somewhere in that order of magnitude,) it could get hit by micrometeors, something could have gone wrong in manufacturing that got missed in inspection. Hell, if everything goes great then you have to shut it down arbitraril
    • by roystgnr (4015) <roystgnr@@@ticam...utexas...edu> on Thursday March 08, 2007 @10:03PM (#18284574) Homepage
      A) Build the satellite correctly the first time around

      Good plan. If you just don't make any mistakes in the design or construction of every satellite you launch, you'll never have to fix any of them. Also, all the satellites should be manned by magic elves.
    • You are attempting to fix a satellite. Cancel or Allow?
  • by Anonymous Coward
    3x overbudget and a year behind schedule. I hope it works.
  • A.) A satellite that lasts a good 20 years after years of work and knowledge accumulated on how to make them last 20 years...


    Or:


    B.) A super complex robo-satellite that fixes *other* satellites and stays out of repair itself.


    It's A if you ask me... for a good long time.

  • Finally, Andrew Lloyd Webber's vision has come to fruition
    • by lexical (842527)

      Finally, Andrew Lloyd Webber's vision has come to fruition
      Swing and a miss. Nice try, and thanks for playing....
    • As far as I'm aware the plan doesn't include building a railway, but it may include roller blades. I'll get back to you on that.
  • ..."R2, get out on the wing and fix that satellite"

    *end sarcasm*
  • Great Weapon (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Thursday March 08, 2007 @09:13PM (#18284040)
    Imagine the military applications - you can send it out to do interesting things like attaching remote controlled explosive packages onto satellites. Then when war breaks out you can kill them in orbit.

    You could attach thruster packages to geostationary satellites and boost them into completely different orbits.

    You could just cut their solar panels off like pulling wings of flies.

    Given the problems with remote refuelling satellites when they are all one-off devices, this gadget seems to be more of a weapon than a tool.

    There has to be a Clancy novel in here somewhere
    • There has to be a Clancy novel in here somewhere

      Or a Crichton novel: self reproducing repair robots take over outer space, threatening to turn shuttle fleet into spare parts.

    • by dfsmith (960400)

      Or perhaps you contact Blofeld, set up a base in a Japanese volcano, and kidnap astronauts to take over the world! [imdb.com]

      BTW, the article didn't mention geosynchronous orbits at all. Did I miss it?

    • More subtle things might be even more fun. Tapping, filtering, or modifying the data the satellite is passing on without the knowledge of the country that owns it would be a CIA dream come true.
    • by dbIII (701233)

      There has to be a Clancy novel in here somewhere

      The one where the satellite designer that has never been to school works with the astronauts that have never been to school and the mission controllers that have never been to school but all are incredibly competant and take orders directly from a President that was never elected - and all of Congress and the Supreme Court are dead.

    • Or simply put thrusters on the satellites you are supposedly repairing so you can drop them on whomever you'd like TO drop them on... and blame it on the owners for making shoddy products!

      Mass drivers like that are very cheap and VERY effective.

      500kg dropped from geostationary orbit has quite a bit of slam when it hits... Now do the math with a 5 TON package... or drop them in groups of ten or twenty... there's not enough Bactine to cover an ouchie THAT size on the whole planet.

      'Nuff Said...!
      • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

        by khallow (566160)
        Too bad that satellites have a large crosssection area to mass. They'll burn up in the atmosphere. The sort of thing they're talking about are long tungsten rods and the like. Extremely high density, resistence to heat, and the low crosssection area means it'll pick up a lot of energy before it hits the ground.
  • If they can fix orbiting satellites easily now, we're at most 5 years away from "Pimp my Geosynchronously Orbiting Ride."
    • by 3waygeek (58990)
      HDNet [hd.net] will offer HD coverage of the launch at 10 PM EST.
    • fyi the webcast hasn't started yet - the launch window extends from 9:37-11:42 p.m. EST. A live web cast of the launch will be available at this site. The web cast will begin approximately 20 minutes prior to the opening of the launch window.
    • It sure would be nice if just one of the above links actually worked. But its apparently all /.ed.
  • Errr... i didnt read all the reply above mine but did any one think how if the Orbital Express itself breaks? Are they lunching just ONE Orbital Express or a PAIR? Coz according to the aritcle it looks like only one is lunch. And wut gurantees that it will have after spending 20 years up there and it itself is out of fuel and etc.... So i guess NASA like "hope" to lunch another before tht. Either tht or they just start shooting stuff of geosynchronous orbit one by one to make room.. haha
    • by donaldGuy (969269)
      yea, seriously .. this very much a Quis custodiet ipsos custodes situation .. not only might the Orbital Express run out of fuel, it will probably do so fairly quickly if its zipping around fixing others. When it breaks down, will they abandon the project, make a new one, or make a smaller version to fix the first one.. this logically leads quickly to an "There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly" scenario where we have to keep sending robots to fix robots, and with all the fear of piling up space debris,
  • How long does it last in orbit on its own?
  • > Autonomous Space Transport Robotic Operations, the ASTRO

    Hehe, their name, when you take the first letters, spells "Astro"! What are the odds of that?
    • by Tim C (15259)
      Pretty high - generally what happens is that you come up with a nice acronym then "retrofit" an expansion to it, or you have a partial name (something like "Autonomous Space Repair Operation"), someone notices that the initials are *almost* a nice acronym, then you tweak the name to make it fit.

      In my experience, it's extremely rare that someone comes up with a name then realises that it also makes for a nice, snappy acronym.
  • The Orbital Express program consists of two satellites: ASTRO (servicer) and NextSat (servicee). The program will demonstrate the capability for ASTRO to service NextSat (e.g., doing a fuel transfer). If all goes well then there will be a follow on program. Orbital Express is not a GEO sat. The shuttle cannot service all GEO, MEO, and most LEO satellites. GEO satellites require constant maneuvering in order to maintain their orbits. Satellites do not last 20 years (but they do orbit for that period and long
  • If only there were a robotic spacecraft in geostationary orbit

    If only we had a proper shuttle that could reach geostationary orbit...

The opposite of a correct statement is a false statement. But the opposite of a profound truth may well be another profound truth. -- Niels Bohr

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