Nasa moves ahead with robotic satellite repair craft

Restore-L will be able to both repair and refuel satellites in space. Image courtesy of Nasa.
Restore-L will be able to both repair and refuel satellites in space. Image courtesy of Nasa.

US space agency Nasa has this week announced new information regarding its plans to build an in-orbit satellite repair craft.

Nasa’s craft, which itself takes the form of a satellite, will be able to both repair, and also refuel satellites while in space.

Called ‘Restore-L’, the repair/refueling craft will be contracted out to Space Systems/Loral of Palo Alto, California.

This company will build not only the satellite bus, but also provide critical hardware and services for the development of the Restore-L craft, as well as assistance during its deployment and operations.

All up the development of the craft will cost Nasa $127m, covering a ‘three year core period’.

The Restore L spacecraft itself is tentatively slated for launch in 2020, so long as it is completed on time.

A new paradigm

Currently, the lifetime of a satellite is limited to the amount of fuel it can carry in order to perform corrections to its orbit.

In addition, even small faults can easily cause a catastrophic failure in the harsh environment of space, resulting in the loss of hundreds of millions of dollars in investment.

However, with a craft like Restore-L active, low fuel or in-orbit faults need not prove fatal for a satellite.

“Restore-L effectively breaks the paradigm of one-and-done spacecraft,” said Frank Cepollina, the associate director of the Satellite Servicing Capabilities Office at Nasa.

“It introduces new ways to robotically manage, upgrade and prolong the lifespans of our costly orbiting national assets. By doing so, Restore-L opens up expanded options for more resilient, efficient and cost-effective operations in space.”

In the longer term, a fleet of such craft could significantly expand the average lifespan of a satellite by many years, cutting down on problematic space junk.

Moreover, the technology used by the Restore-L project could be easily put to use capturing and de-orbiting dead satellites, removing their risk of collision with more useful objects.

Nasa also sees Restore-L as a testbed of critical technologies, such as robotic arms and autonomous navigation, which it will need to use during its planned ‘Asteroid Redirect Mission’.