Space isn’t just hard. It’s expensive. Take your average satellite. From R&D to launch, costs regularly hit hundreds of millions. And they don’t last forever.
Fuel is companies and space agencies biggest hurdle. It keeps satellites pointed in the right direction to send and receive signals and helps them avoid any collisions. The problem is, there’s only so much fuel a satellite can hold. Companies like SpaceX come up with ways to pump more fuel into their tanks, but there’s always a limit.
Another concern is problems with the satellite itself. Mechanical and electrical glitches can end a satellite’s day in a hurry. It’s why you often see a few spare satellites included in satellite constellations (such as communication satellites).
It’s a problem space fans like me often overlook. But one NASA is trying to solve. Yesterday, the space agency announced they had awarded a $127 million contract to Space Systems/Loral based out of Palo Alto, California.
The contract is specifically for the Restore-L Spacecraft Bus and Support Services. It’s a robotic spacecraft packed with the tools and technologies to service satellites in orbit. A AAA spaceside service.
Space Systems/Loral have three years to get the spacecraft ready for its projected launch. In 2020, NASA expects to launch Restore-L and conduct the ambitious mission. During the mission, Restore-L will use robotic arms to grab the Landsat 7 satellite (it provides up-to-date photos of Earth). It will top off the satellite’s fuel tank and reposition it.
A robotic servicing arm that will be used on Restore-L.
Did You Know: Of the 1,000+ operational satellites in space, only two were designed to be serviceable. The Hubble Space Telescope and the International Space Station.
If successful, Restore-L will be a game changer. Satellite operators will no longer have to regularly replace their satellites. The option will be there for them to service and refuel their satellites. And it will give rise to a whole new industry in space. Companies could specialize in servicing and maintaining other companies’ satellite fleets.
“With robotic servicing on the table, satellite owners can extend the lifespan of satellites that are running low on fuel, reaping additional years of service – and revenue – from their initial investment. If a solar array or a communications antenna fails to deploy, a servicer with inspection cameras and the right repair tools could help recover the asset that otherwise would have been lost. The loss of an anticipated revenue or data stream can be devastating,” says Benjamin Reed, a deputy project manager at the Satellite Servicing Capabilities Office (SSCO).
NASA’s plans for Restore-L stretch well beyond low-Earth orbit. The technologies being used here are already being implemented in NASA’s Asteroid Redirect Mission and the space agency’s ultimate mission – Journey to Mars.
The Journey to Mars: Restore-L’s mission will test vital hardware and technologies NASA plans to incorporate into a manned mission to Mars. New navigation systems, robotic arms, software and a propellant transfer system that delivers the right amount of fuel at the right temps and pressure.
Restore-L could solve another huge problem facing space agencies and companies. Space junk. If the spacecraft can delicately grab a working satellite and reposition it, grabbing defunct satellites and repositioning them isn’t too far of a stretch.