NASA to Conduct Robotic Refueling Experiment on ISS

International Space Station

NASA will conduct a remote refueling experiment at the International Space Station during the final space shuttle mission set to launch in June. The mission will involve refueling a mock spacecraft remotely from the ground.

Frank Cepollina, NASA deputy associate director in the space service capabilities office at the center, described the Robotic Refueling Mission to Space News last April:

NASA plans to demonstrate in-orbit satellite refueling at the international space station with the help of Dextre, the two-armed Canadian robot. In an experiment scheduled to be conducted in the next six to 12 months, Dextre will be equipped with special tools on the end of its arms to cut through a satellite’s exterior, insulation and wiring, hook up a hose and pump hydrazine into the satellite. For the experiment, NASA will be relying on a simulated satellite, being built by NASA Goddard engineers and scheduled to be completed in October. The mock spacecraft — essentially just the back end of a satellite — will be bolted to an Express Logistics Carrier, a platform attached to the space station’s exterior. Once the simulated spacecraft and tools are completed, the equipment will be sent to the space station.

“The simulated spacecraft is fully wrapped, like a spacecraft in geosynchronous or low Earth orbit,” Cepollina said. The experiment will be directed by astronauts on the ground, probably located at Johnson Space Center in Houston, and will not involve any of the space station crew. “The fundamental objective is to prove that you don’t have to design your satellites to be refueled on orbit,” Cepollina said. “You can refuel existing fleets.”

Following this experiment, NASA plans to demonstrate the work can be done autonomously, Cepollina said. That demonstration will be important to show that satellites traveling 14,000 kilometers from Earth in geosynchronous orbit also can be refueled and repaired. “We are trying to develop the dexterity of robots to fix spacecraft so they can continue to do their jobs, Cepollina said. “You would never buy a car that was not repairable, why should we buy a satellite that’s not?”

It will be interesting to see how this experiment goes.