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Space Science

Orbital Express Launches Tonight 137

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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  • 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:modular (Score:3, Interesting)

    by susano_otter ( 123650 ) on Thursday March 08, 2007 @08:45PM (#18283836) Homepage

    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 design, manufacture, and mission profile will change if we can make this system work.
  • 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
  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday March 08, 2007 @09:16PM (#18284068)
    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 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.
  • 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.

  • 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."
  • Re:Woot (Score:2, Interesting)

    by flyingsquid ( 813711 ) on Friday March 09, 2007 @01:14AM (#18285836)
    How about kicking other people's satellites out of orbit... or placing an explosive charge on them which can be detonated at will, if a war flares up at some point in the future.

    This might sound a bit tinfoil-hat, but the USAF has a history of working on antisatellite warfare, and space superiority is probably going to be as important to the 21st-century battlefield as air superiority was to the 20th century. If you can use space to navigate, communicate, and spy- and deny your enemy the same ability- then you've got a major advantage on the battlefield.

The other line moves faster.