Astrium To Build Robotic Satellite Servicing Craft

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PARIS — Astrium GmbH of Germany will design a robotic system to repair, refuel and dispose of in-orbit satellites and perform other missions in low Earth orbit under a contract with the German Aerospace Center, DLR.

The one-year contract, signed at the German air show, ILA, in Berlin, is valued at 15 million euros ($19 million), DLR said Sept. 13. Astrium Satellites of Friedrichshafen, Germany, and Astrium Space Transportation of Bremen, Germany, will lead the work, with subcontractors including DLR’s space operations and robotics and mechatronics divisions of Oberpfaffenhofen.

DLR for the past couple of years has been weighing an investment in what it calls Deos, an operational satellite-servicing system.

The 19-nation European Space Agency (ESA) has been weighing a similar investment that would be done as part of ESA’s barter arrangement with NASA relating to the international space station. But this idea appears to have been set aside, for the moment, because of its estimated cost of 1 billion euros or more.

“Providing services in space is only possible through the use of space robotics,” said Gerd Gruppe, DLR’s director for space administration, who signed the contract with Astrium. “The performance level of modern robots is comparable to the capabilities of an astronaut in a space suit. The Deos mission is expected to put this to the test for the first time — as a national technology verification for the maintenance and targeted return of defunct satellites from low Earth orbit.”

A secondary mission for Deos, he said, is “to prepare for the introduction of sustainable orbital infrastructures. This focuses on efficient methods of teleoperation and controlling a satellite’s automated processes.”

DLR said that Deos’ first orbital test will be the launch of two satellites that will separate in orbit and perform a series of maneuvers, including rendezvous and nondestructive capture, before they are guided into the atmosphere, where they will burn up.