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NASA Space Earth Robotics The Almighty Buck Technology

NASA Awards $127 Million Contract For Refueling Mission Spacecraft (gizmodo.com) 38

Satellites cost millions of dollars to be launched into space and there's no guarantee that they will work without electrical or mechanical problems once in orbit. NASA has recently announced that it will award a $127 million contract to a company that aims to use a robotic spacecraft to fix satellites in space, thus potentially saving millions of dollars in the long-run by fixing satellites that would otherwise be "expensive e-waste." Gizmodo reports: NASA has just announced that it will award a $127 million contract to the California-based satellite company Space Systems/Loral for Restore-L, a robotic spacecraft capable of grasping, refueling and relocating a satellite in low Earth orbit, in addition to testing technologies for future missions. SSL has three years to build the bot, which is projected to launch in 2020. Without the ability to refuel, a satellite's lifespan is restricted by the amount of propellant engineers can pack in its tank at launch. That lifespan can be cut even shorter should the spacecraft encounter any electrical or mechanical problems on orbit. As more and more satellites reach the end of their operational lifespans, government agencies and private companies have been working to remedy this problem by developing robots that can give satellites a tune-up in zero-gravity. DARPA, for instance, recently launched a program aimed at designing robots capable of servicing satellites at the hard-to-reach but highly-desirable perch of geosynchronous orbit, 22,000 miles above Earth. NASA's Satellite Servicing Division, meanwhile, has a handful of on-orbit repair and refueling technology demonstrators in the works, including a robotic arm with the same range of motion as a human arm, a navigation system designed to help robots rendezvous with moving objects in space, and Restore-L, which combines these and other capabilities into a multi-purpose space mechanic. For now, Restore-L's primary goal is to refuel Landsat 7, a critical Earth-monitoring satellite operated by NASA and the U.S. Geological Survey. If successful, the spacecraft may be modified for all sorts of other useful tasks, from mopping up the ever-growing halo of space junk encircling our planet, to servicing exciting new science missions like the Asteroid Redirect Mission, which will grab a multi-ton boulder from the surface of an asteroid and tow it back to orbit around the Moon.
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NASA Awards $127 Million Contract For Refueling Mission Spacecraft

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  • by Anonymous Coward

    Slightly off topic, but now that we have self driving cars, that rely on GPS satellites (or Glosnass) how do they handle fake GPS data?

    i.e. when the controller of the satellite system deliberately reports false satellite location results to fuck up the calculated GPS position?

    Would the car drive us off a cliff?

    Currently there are two systems, one controlled by Putin, and one controlled by Putin fanbois, and really I don't trust either with my life.

    • by Anonymous Coward

      There are at least 3 different GNSS systems in operation. GPS, GLONASS and Galileo. There are others also in the pipeline, and some regional ones too.

    • i.e. when the controller of the satellite system deliberately reports false satellite location results to fuck up the calculated GPS position?

      That would screw with all receivers receiving the signal, or at least with any that aren't smart enough, which would be the majority. With lots of stuff dependent on these things, how would you propose to do this without major costs? Start with the police all over the country suddenly being called to all ankle monitor wearers in the country at once.

    • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

      by Anonymous Coward

      This is all done, solved and trodden to death. For one, GPS was always a primarily (US) military thing, so their customers received a better service (i.e. accuracy).

      Moreover, they do provide the service to civilians at no cost (which is nice, hey, thanks[1]!), but reserve the right to disrupt the signal in case of conflict. This was, BTW, one of the leading arguments in favor of creating GPS's european sister, Galileo (and probably of GLONASS).

      [1] I do say that as an EUsian. Most sincerely. Mind you: I don'

    • by Rei ( 128717 )

      Do you think your car drives you into a wall as soon as you drive into a tunnel?

      GPS does not override sensor data.

    • fake GPS data? OLD / poor map data is a bigger issue.

    • Cars don't use GPS to tell where obstacles in the road are. Same goes for telling where the edge of the road is, I'm sure. Most cliffs will have a guardrail as an additional obstacle for it to detect, too.

  • What if Restore-L breaks down? And then the Restore-L they send to repair Restore-L breaks down?

    Or what if it gets out there, goes crazy, and starts destroying satellites willy-nilly?

    • Or what if it gets out there, goes crazy, and starts destroying satellites willy-nilly?

      Don't worry. It won't be running Windows.

  • Well, we do need a good OTV (Orbital Transfer Vehicle). You could use it to move stuff from orbit to orbit as needed.

    So, how much fuel is this robot going to have on board? How or why would you refuel it?

    The reason you put tiny fuel tanks on satellites is that it cost a lot to launch anything on a rocket. If it didn't then the engineers would put huge tanks on things sitting in orbit. Tanks designed to last as long as the next part expected to fail.

    At there aren't that many kinds of propellant in

    • by dbIII ( 701233 )

      Orbital transfers aren't free or cheap

      Very true but when most of your potential customers are in geostationary orbit and you have months to work your way from one to the other it's not so ugly.
      Readers, think in ellipses not one dimensional thinking with concentric circles. Not easy maybe but that's how it's done.

      What can a hypothetical servicing robot do about dead batteries

      I very strongly suspect that the complete mission plan will worked out on ground before launch and the thing will be sent to work on X

  • Back in the 1970s one of the selling points/excuses for giving up on the Saturn V etc and going for the Space Shuttle was that it could be used to refuel satellites and do repair on them - which did happen with spectacular success with the Hubble telescope. One of several major reasons that such missions were very rare is that the Space Shuttle was limited to doing missions in low earth orbit and it's a very long way to geostationary orbit from there.

    A robot craft could potentially get to that distant orb
  • So it will only run us $127 Million for a Robot capable of making repairs to Satellites but it costs $4 Billion for AirForce 1 ???

    • by hey! ( 33014 )

      Well, it's actually $3.75 billion. And it's not one, but two aircraft, so that's 1.875 billion apiece. That's to ensure the executive branch can function in a military crisis while one of the planes is being service.

      Deduct 375 million apiece for the airframe, and we're talking 1.5 billion dollars in customization for each aircraft, including aerial refueling capabilities, which on a two-off job is a craft job; no economies of scale. Add defense and countermeasure capabilities that Air Force is extremely cl

    • by tomhath ( 637240 )
      NASA won't get anything for $127M; that's just the starting point for cost overruns to build on. Plus it's unmanned so if it eventually does fail, no big loss.
  • are satellites even designed to be maintained in space?

  • The satellites should have enough fuel aboard after deployment to maintain a stable low Earth orbit through their anticipated lifespan. Let's remember, these are technologically advanced devices which operate throughout their lifespan in the harshest environmental conditions we can reach. There are a great many satellites still in stable orbit which have been rendered inoperative through extended exposure to radiation (in space, no one can hear you burn/freeze/be irradiated). EOL is EOL, and while it may
  • by Jerry ( 6400 ) on Wednesday December 07, 2016 @03:35PM (#53442481)

    LOL!
    More than likely a stealth satellite killer which can move from one to another planting remotely triggered destructive devices.

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