NASA, Canadian Space Agency Begins Satellite Refueling Experiment

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According to, NASA and the Canadian Space Agency have commenced a several-day-long experiment involving the refueling of satellites in space. It is hoped that the experiment will lead to the lengthening of the operating lives of satellites.

Refueling experiment taking place on the International Space Station

NASA and Canadian ground controllers are using the Canadian-built Special Purpose Dexterous Manipulator (Dextre) to perform a series of tasks on an experimental platform called the RRM, which contains a number of tools and represents a satellite that would be refueled. These tasks include snipping a wire attached to a cap and then removing the cap. Other manipulations, including opening and closing valves and transferring simulated fuel, will follow, according to, over a period of several days.

Robot Refueling Mission may lead to satellite servicing

According to NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, the RRM module is about the size of a washing machine and weighs 550 pounds. The module contains 0.45 gallons of ethanol that serves as the fuel that would be transferred during the experiment. The RRM module contains a number of tools that were designed by the same NASA team that designed the tools used to service the Hubble Space Telescope. The tools are being used by the Dextre to snip wires, unscrew caps, open and close valves, and transfer fuel. The tools all have cameras and LED lights that allow ground controllers to manipulate them remotely and monitor the progress of each task. The RRM was delivered to the International Space Station by the STS-135 Atlantis mission in July 2011. Spacewalking astronauts placed the RRM in a temporary position on the Dextre . The Dextre , which is attached to a remote manipulator arm also built by the Canadian Space Agency, moved the RRM to its permanent location on space station, the ExPRESS (Expedite the Processing of Experiments to the Space Station) Logistics Carrier-4 in September 2011.

Hopes for servicing satellites suggests that if the experiment is a success it could lead to robot refueling and repair missions to commercial and government satellites to extend their life. Currently when a communications satellite runs out of fuel or suffers a malfunction, it ends its useful life and becomes space junk, a hazard to navigation. If robots could be sent to refuel and repair such satellites, their useful lives could be extended, alleviating the expense of replacing them, and removing a source of space debris.

Mark R. Whittington is the author of Children of Apollo and The Last Moonwalker. He has written on space subjects for a variety of periodicals, including The Houston Chronicle, The Washington Post, USA Today, the L.A. Times, and The Weekly Standard.

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