First a pioneer in space satellite communications, then in space robotics, Canada has taken another step into space history by blazing a trail in space refueling.
More importantly, it’s a step towards refueling satellites in space using robotics, which could be key to maintaining global communications and promoting human exploration of the universe.
It’s a lot of responsibility, but not too much for the 2-meter-wide “shoulders” of one Dextre the Handyman. Not when Canadarm2 is there to help.
Recently, the two Canadian-engineered robotic tools were used on a mock craft that was set up outside the International Space Station to demonstrate how satellites could be refueled in outer space.
Robot controllers at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, used “cutting-edge technologies,” as NASA called them, to cut delicate wiring, then unscrew and stow protective caps on the mock fuel valve. From there, they inserted a nozzle and transferred liquid ethanol into the mock satellite.
The robots then executed a maneuver in which the nozzle was withdrawn from the valve, leaving behind a “quick disconnect” fitting to allow for simpler refuelings in the future.
The experiment showed not only that liquid fuel could be successfully transferred in space, but that robotics have the dexterity (aha, Dextre) to service a satellite, even if it was not originally designed to be refueled.
Canada & U.S. Team For Sustainability
The joint Canadian Space Agency and NASA effort, known as the Robotic Refueling Mission (RRM), was celebrated as a move towards a greener, more sustainable space, where satellites aren’t running out of fuel and then just clogging geosynchronus orbits with useless spacecraft.
“RRM allows us to take a major step into the future — a future where humans and machines can together take on greatly expanded roles in space capability, research and exploration,” said Frank Cepollina, associate director of NASA’s Satellite Servicing Capabilities Office at Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland, in the NASA news release.
Servicing satellites in space can expand options for both government and commercial space fleet operators, the release says, “potentially delivering stakeholders significant savings in spacecraft replacement and launch costs.”
Another proud day in Canadian space history. You can almost imagine a little red mechanic’s rag stuffed somewhere in a Dextre tool pocket, maybe with a maple leaf emblazoned on the corner.
So, why does Canada’s space future seem so glum?
After months of delays, Canada’s aerospace review was finally issued late last year. It called for more investment in both the public and private space sectors, with the goal of maintaining Canada’s role as a space pioneer, and to keep the industry globally competitive.
Instead, CSA is facing a 20 percent budget cut, leaving some within the industry with little energy to celebrate.
Earlier this month, the government’s Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council announced a $5 million investment into research and development of planetary rovers and other space robotics — the reaction of one researcher seemed to sum up the mood.
“Canada can use 10 times as much, but you have to start somewhere,” York University’s Michael Jenkin told Space.com.
A few days later, the Minister of Industry announced a repayable government contribution of $778,800 to Engineering Services Inc. to research and develop mobile robotics that could take on tasks like reconnaissance for “law enforcement, defence and other security sectors.”
“Canada is a world leader in robotics, and through targeted and repayable investments such as this one, we are helping cement that reputation,” said Minister Christian Paradis.
Meanwhile, more RRM experiments are scheduled through 2013, with an eye on possibly beginning refueling operations on bona fide satellites within the next five to 10 years.
“RRM is a harbinger of the next era in satellite fleet operations,” said deputy project manager Benjamin Reed.
Hopefully, with more Dextres on board to lead the way.
AJ Plunkett is a freelance writer in Virginia with experience in covering defense and aerospace industries, as well as health care issues. AJ blogs via Contently.com.