NASA launches robotic gas station

Watch out gas station attendants, NASA is now experimenting with a Robotic Refueling Mission experiment that will provide refueling and minor repairs to spacecraft already in orbit.

By using a robotic gas station, astronauts won’t be required to make all repairs, saving space agencies millions of dollars and prolonging the time spacecraft can stay in orbit.

The Robotic Refueling Mission (RRM) satellite was launched into space on board NASA’s Atlantis space shuttle on Friday July 8th. Today, astronauts aboard the Atlantis space shuttle will dock the RRM satellite to the International Space Station during their scheduled spacewalk.

Although currently considered an experiment, the RRM will be a trial for gas station attendant extroidinaire: Dextre. Dextre is a twin-armed robot residing on the space station who will be responsible for refueling and completing minor repairs on the RRM.

The main challenge the spacewalkers face is attaching the RRM to the space station with the help of Dextre, the Special Purpose Dexterous Manipulator. The robot will help the astronauts attach the RRM to its permanent location before getting to work.

Once in place, Dextre will undergo a series of tests, like refueling the shuttle. Dextre is controlled by human operators located on Earth who will have to cut securing wires, remove caps, and other complicated tasks before filling ‘er up.

If the RRM can indeed refuel space shuttles and complete minor repairs it will not only lower costs but also allow for prolonged space travel. Although astronauts have serviced spacecraft in the past, RRM and Dextre will be able to repair many different types of satellites, something that was previously not possible.

“We anticipate it enabling future missions, future capabilities, for the international aerospace community,” NASA’s Satellite Servicing Capabilities Officer, Benjamin Reed, told reporters last week.

“We’re going to make this data available to everybody,” said Frank Cepollina, RRM project manager at the Satellite Servicing Capabilities Office. “That is, all commercial industry that may want to leap off and start their own ventures.”

Update from NASA:

About three hours, 15 minutes into the spacewalk, Mike Fossum and Ron Garan completed installing the Robotic Refueling Mission (RRM) experiment onto a platform on Dextre, the Special Purpose Dexterous Manipulator.

In the future, the RRM will demonstrate robotic refueling technology and techniques using Dextre, four unique RRM tools and an RRM enclosure filled with refueling components and activity boards. The tests will demonstrate that remote-controlled robots can perform refueling tasks in orbit, using commands sent from controllers on Earth. RRM is expected to reduce costs and risks, and lay the foundation for future robotic servicing missions.