NASA robot, VIPIR, meant to help repair satellites in Space. (via NASA)
NASA has been concocting new robots, like Visual Inspection Poseable Invertebrate Robot (VIPIR) seen above, to repair satellites in Space. While repairs on the Hubble Space Telescope were carried out by humans with special tools, NASA and other space agencies hope to carry out all future repair work with man operated robots.
Using humans to repair satellites and spacecraft can be extremely dangerous. Hence, robots like the new VIPIR would make the job less risky. This robot has an articulating borescope and a zoom-lens camera which will allow it to act as the eyes for a remote team, controlling the robots.
This new robot will be the first of many which allow NASA to tele-operate satellite repairs – an maybe spacecraft repairs in future. VIPIR is going to have its first on-orbit demonstration in a Robotic Refueling Mission. During this mission, VIPIR will act as the eyes of the operation while a Canadian Space Agency robot, named Dextre, carries out the refueling of the International Space Station. If this proves successful, NASA plans to carry out another demonstration in which the robots transfer xenon gas, which could power future ion engines. These robots are a direct answer to the law passed by Congress in 2010, which requires all new astrophysics missions to support servicing, up to a million miles away from Earth. Hence, these new robots will be intended for use, not only on the International Space Station, but hopefully in distant orbits in the years to come.
While the VIPIR and Dextre are intended to repair satellites at the moment, NASA must continue to innovate robotic repair robots for future spacecraft as well. While serviceable spacecraft, like the Mission Modular Spacecraft, already exist, NASA hopes to ensure that all future repairs can be carried out by robots controlled remotely, from Earth.
The tests being carried out by VIPIR and Dextre are the first steps planned by NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center and Benjamin Reed, the deputy project manager of the Satellite Servicing Capabilities Office. In future plans, they are engineering how to make the future WFIRST-AFTA mission, to study dark energy, serviceable in deeper orbit. The 2020 Astrophysics Decadal Survey is also being considered for a deeper orbit, with the idea that future robots will be able to service these missions on-orbit.
For now, these future projects hope to orbit optimally in a sun-Earth orbit about one million miles away. However, there are many reservations that future service robots won’t be able to successfully complete repairs in such deep orbits. If this is the case, NASA plans to have many alternative ways to service these spacecraft.
One planned method is a robotic servicing vehicle called the Restore. This vehicle is simply a concept at this point, but it would be a spacecraft that could be sent to both low-Earth orbits and sun-Earth orbits a million miles away to perform refueling and servicing. Reed also hopes that these Restore spacecraft can be ‘parked’ in orbit and be called upon to service other spacecraft when needed. While this idea seems exciting, NASA has yet to hash out the details in practice. However, this year will prove successful if the VIPIR and Dextre can demonstrate refueling at the International Space Station.
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