NASA Wants a Robot in Space to Refuel Satellites by 2020


Space debris orbiting the Earth is a growing problem, it’s been getting worse for 58 years. A lot of this debris is created by satellites, which inevitably reach an end-of-life state by running out of fuel. Refueling satellites isn’t something that can currently be done due to the cost and complexity involved. However, NASA is set to change that with a robot spacecraft, and it looks to have found its first client.

The robotic spacecraft is called Restore-L. The plan is to have it in operation by mid-2020 and capable of servicing and refueling satellites, even if they were not specifically designed to be compatible with the Restore-L robot. That means existing satellites could have their lives extended.

In order for Restore-L to be viable, it needs clients, and it looks to have got its first in the form of the United States Geological Survey’s Landsat 7. This satellite’s main purpose is to capture images of Earth so we have a continuous up-to-date record. It’s capable of capturing and transmitting up to 532 images every day, and if all goes to plan come 2020, it will be doing that for much longer than originally intended.

robots to refill satellites

It’s not just about refueling, though. Restore-L will be equipped with a dexterous robotic arm meaning it could carry out repairs and even collect debris when necessary. And with Restore-L now confirmed as a project that’s happening, new satellites can be designed with compatibility in mind. That means satellites with easily upgradeable equipment, simple refueling systems, and overall lower costs.

Once Restore-L is fully operational the costs associated with launching a satellite should decrease significantly. No longer do you need to launch the satellite heavy with fuel, or ensure it has all the equipment it needs from day one. You can ship that out later. We may even reach a point where there’s a giant fuel tank orbiting the Earth which Restore-L regularly visits to top up before its next refueling mission.



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