Space Station-bound Refueling Demo Won’t Start Before November

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GREENBELT, Md. — NASA’s, Robotic Refueling Mission (RRM), the U.S. space agency’s attempt to demonstrate on-orbit satellite refueling and repair capabilities, will begin technical demonstrations in November — about four months after it reaches the international space station.

NASA’s experiment requires the use of the Special Purpose Dexterous Manipulator (Dextre), a twin-armed Canadian-built robot that arrived at the space station in 2008. The robot will use a set of satellite-servicing tools to perform simulated refueling tasks on a satellite mockup that NASA is shipping to the space station aboard Space Shuttle Atlantis.

However, the robot needs a software update from the Canadian Space Agency before it can wield the new tools, which were custom built for the mission by NASA engineers at the Goddard Space Flight Center here.

Julie Simard, a spokeswoman for the Canadian Space Agency, said June 29 the software update is slotted for uplink to the space station “in mid- to late-October.”

Given that schedule, robotic refueling and repair demonstrations will not be able to proceed until November, Christy Hansen, RRM Operations Manager, said June 28 during a media tour of Goddard.

RRM — a 250-kilogram satellite mock-up fitted with the same valves, caps and connectors found on many commercial and government satellites — will fly to the space station aboard Atlantis as part of the final space shuttle mission. That mission was, at press time, slated to launch July 8 from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

RRM will be mounted outside the space station with the help of astronauts sometime in August, Hansen said.

Later, when Dextre’s software upgrade arrives, operators at the Johnson Space Center in Houston will start using the robot and its Goddard-engineered attachments to conduct mock satellite refueling and repair operations.

Operators will use the robot to cut away protective thermal blankets, unscrew fuel caps and transfer simulated fuel — ethanol, in this case — from one reservoir on the mockup to another. The goal, NASA says, is to demonstrate that such work can be done using existing technology.

Building RRM cost $22.6 million, NASA spokesman Dewayne Washington said.

In its 2011 operating plan — a copy of which was obtained by Space News after the plan’s mid-June delivery to NASA appropriators on Capitol Hill — NASA said it wants to spend $36 million on “satellite servicing development activities” this year.

According to the spending plan, that money will be used to develop tools like the ones Goddard has already made — modular tips for the Dextre robot’s arms, for example — and to pay for the sensor technology that service robots will need to rendezvous with orbiting satellites and safely capture them.

NASA hopes that RRM will spark a private satellite-servicing industry, which in turn could encourage satellite owners to pile additional sensors, electronics and fuel-carrying capacity onto future spacecraft. The expectation, said the head of NASA’s Space Servicing Capabilities Office, is that on-orbit service will extend the life of a satellite long enough to make a higher up-front investment worthwhile for fleet operators.

“If your satellite is $500 million to $1 billion and you can somehow fix three or four satellites with one mission, then it’s probably economically viable, from the studies we’ve done,” said Frank Cepollina, deputy associate director of NASA’s Space Servicing Capabilities Office at Goddard.

Cepollina estimates that every decade, about 88 satellites fail in orbit.

NASA’s plan to demonstrate on-orbit satellite refueling technology has ruffled feathers in some quarters of the satellite industry. Late last month, Steve Oldham, president of satellite servicing at Canada’s MacDonald Dettwiler and Associates, told The Globe and Mail, a Canadian newspaper, that NASA would have a nigh-insurmountable competitive advantage if it chose to enter the on-orbit satellite servicing business.

MacDonald Dettwiler, builder of the Dextre robot, has plans to get into the on-orbit satellite refueling business. The company plans to launch a spacecraft to geosynchronous orbit and perform refueling services for satellite fleet operator Intelsat of Luxembourg and Washington. Intelsat has said it will pay $280 million for MacDonald, Dettwiler’s services.

In addition to the contract with Intelsat, MacDonald Dettwiler’s business plan assumes the company’s on-orbit refueling business will be patronized by government satellite operators.

NASA said it does not plan to compete with commercial providers like MacDonald Dettwiler. “NASA is not going to compete, not currently or in the future, with private industry on any kind of commercial refueling effort,” NASA Chief Technologist Bobby Braun said during a June 27 media teleconference on the agency’s technology plans. “This first technology experiment … is needed to demonstrate the technology so that commercial efforts have a chance to be successful.”

Braun said data obtained from NASA’s refueling demonstration  will be made “available to all.”