NASA’s Robotic Satellite Servicing Demonstration Delayed until March

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WASHINGTON — NASA’s Robotic Refueling Mission, a space station-based demonstration effort caught up in a cascading series of delays following the last summer’s crash of a Russian cargo module, will finally begin its first on-orbit satellite servicing tests in March, the project’s lead said.

“We will go through the first tasks from March through June, and then pick it up again with the refueling tasks from July through September [and] October,” said Frank Cepollina, principal investigator for the Robotic Refueling Mission at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md.

March 6 is the target date for the first task.

“That’s removing these gas fittings and cutting safety wire and cutting T-valves and demonstrating that we can mechanically manipulate gas fittings on various spacecraft,” Cepollina said. The ultimate goal, he said, “is to be able to demonstrate that we can capture and refuel satellites that were never designed for in-space refueling.”

The first on-orbit demonstration was to have begun in November, but the Aug. 24 loss of space station-bound Russian Progress 44 cargo ship pushed the Robotic Refueling Mission’s schedule to the right, Cepollina said.

Work on the Goddard-led Robotic Refueling Mission began in earnest in 2009, when the project was authorized to proceed into development. By the time the project’s first batch of hardware launched to the space station in 2011 aboard Space Shuttle Atlantis, NASA had spent $22.6 million on the mission, NASA spokesman Dewayne Washington said.

That bought the space agency a satellite stand-in and a Goddard-built set of tools for the end of the space station’s Canadian-built robotic arm. The arm will use the tools to practice satellite servicing on the stand-in, which has been fitted with common commercial satellite components, such as heat blankets, valves and fuel caps.

Asked whether the project was going to be able to live within its means given the budgetary duress anticipated by nearly all federal agencies, Cepollina replied, “Yes, you know, within reason. We have to watch it. We have to be very careful. We have to be lean and mean.”

About 120 people are working on the Robotic Refueling Mission, by Cepollina’s count.

Looking forward, project engineers at Goddard are now working on a second test plate, which is scheduled to be delivered to the international space station in about 18 months. The hardware, similar to the dummy satellite already at the station, will ride to space aboard either Europe’s Automated Transfer Vehicle or Japan’s H-2A Transfer Vehicle, Cepollina said.

Cepollina and his colleagues expect to discuss the early results of the Robotic Refueling Mission at NASA’s second “International Workshop on On-Orbit Satellite Servicing,” which is tentatively scheduled for late May. NASA last held this Goddard-hosted workshop in 2010.

Meanwhile, the Canadian Space Agency must still uplink additional software to the space station so the outpost’s robotic arm can perform the nimble tasks required of it by the Robotic Refueling Mission, said Andrea Matte, a spokeswoman for that agency.

“These operational products are going to be delivered in time to support initial [Robotic Refueling Mission] operations currently scheduled for early to mid-March 2012,” Matte wrote in an email to Space News.

Some updates for the robotic arm’s operating system, also required to proceed with NASA’s mission, were transmitted to the space station this month, Matte added.

Because the Robotic Refueling Mission requires the use of the space station’s grappling arm, no work can proceed on the project when the station is hosting a visiting spacecraft.

Commercial satellite companies have mulled the idea of in-space satellite servicing for years but have not produced a demonstration project. The bottom fell out of one of the most promising commercial projects this month when satellite fleet operator Intelsat and MDA Corp., the Canadian space hardware provider, said they would no longer collaborate on a satellite servicing mission that was supposed to get under way in 2015.