Built for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the Orbital Express vehicles are aimed at demonstrating autonomous spacecraft refueling and servicing techniques [video, image].
For military uses, such capabilities would allow reconnaissance satellites to keep station over specific areas of interest and tank up on vital propellant later, though the technology could also aid general-use spacecraft in need of periodic equipment repairs, replacements or an orbital boost, mission managers said.
â€œI think itâ€™s extremely valuable for the entire space arena,â€ Kennedy said of Orbital Expressâ€™ goal, adding that the mission could help ease the stringent requirements of long-life satellites. â€œMaybe you can accept a level of imperfection that will allow you to go up later and perform upgrades and perform repairs, and put more propellant onboard to get the job done. That will be a sea change in the way we do business.â€
Need to clean a little space debris off the camera lens of a reconnaissance satellite? Call in the Orbiter Express and have them fill ‘er up and check the oil while they’re at it!
And if the Orbital Express carries some decent road maps with it, they can franchise the damn thing and make billions.
Actually, I said this is way cool. It’s actually super way cool. This is from the Orbital Express website:
The goal of the Orbital Express Space Operations Architecture program is to validate the technical feasibility of robotic, autonomous onorbit refueling and reconfiguration of satellites to support a broad range of future U.S. national security and commercial space programs. Refueling satellites will enable frequent maneuver to improve coverage, change arrival times to counter denial and deception and improve survivability, as well as extend satellite lifetime. Electronics upgrades on-orbit can provide regular performance improvements and dramatically reduce the time to deploy new technology on-orbit. The Orbital Express advanced technology demonstration will design, develop and test on-orbit a prototype servicing satellite (ASTRO) and a surrogate next generation serviceable satellite (NextSat). The elements of the Orbital Express demonstration, coordinated with Air Force Space Command and Air Force Space and Missile Command, will be tied together by non-proprietary satellite servicing interfaces (mechanical, electrical, etc.) that will facilitate the development of an industry wide on-orbit servicing infrastructure. NASA will apply the sensors and software developed for autonomous rendezvous and proximity operations to reduce risk for collaborative human-robotic operations in space for the NASA Exploration Initiative.
The proto-type did indeed launch this week, rocketed into orbit with 4 other satellites on a gigantic Atlas V booster. ASTRO represents an extraordinary leap in our space capability. And, an ironic twist to the saga of the Space Shuttle.
It was the Space Shuttle that was supposed to be able to go up on a regular basis and service satellites. This was back in the 1970’s when it was thought the Shuttle would be carrying out about 30-35 missions a year including the civilian and military shuttles.
Many people forget that the Air Force was supposed to be a partner with NASA in the Shuttle program. From 1984-92, 14 of the 57 Shuttle missions had military payloads, some of them top secret. But the Air Force found it was much cheaper to launch their satellites using our conventional boosters, leaving NASA as the sole proprietor of what most experts consider a most inefficient system to launch satellites into space.
The Orbital Express promises to alter the way we build and maintain satellites – commercial and military. This will lower costs while allowing for continuous upgrades. Apparently, future versions will be able to rendezvous with orbiting supply satellites, take what it needs for servicing be it fuel, electronics, or whatever and then make its way to the bird that needs work. It’s equipped with a sophisticated robotic arm that can carry out repairs or replace components – all directed remotely from earth.
In a few years, it will be hard to imagine how we ever got along without it…