NASA to launch robotic gas station into orbit

Refueling your spaceship at the local robot gas station may not just be a piece of science fiction movies anymore.

NASA plans to send components of a robot gas station into space on the shuttle Atlantis, slated for departure on July 8th.

When a satellite is launched into orbit, it has all the fuel it needs to carry out the entire mission. Once the fuel runs out, the mission is over. That means it’s basically “game over” for older satellites that suffer problems or may have drifted into the wrong orbit therefore requiring additional fuel.

As part of its Robotic Refueling Mission, NASA engineers plan to send the gas station components to the International Space Station. The mission marks the last launch to the space station before the 30-year orbiter program is retired.

The gas station components will be attached to the Atlantis shuttle like an external shelf. Much like a normal gas station, the robots will be able to fill ‘er up and perform minor repairs to orbiting satellites.

The gas station’s first employee will be Canadian-built Dextre robot who will check the gas station’s functionality on board the orbiting space station. The refueling test hardware will include simulated caps, valves, external thermal blankets, and ethanol fuel.

“Due to how these satellites were initially assembled, the nature of this mission is very complex,” said Benjamin Reed, NASA’s deputy project manager of the Space Servicing Capabilities Project. “If this works out, whenever a satellite goes through this process, not only will it be refueled, it will also be modified so that now it can be refueled more readily.”

If the tests go smoothly, the body shop’s first mission will be to repair a satellite running low on fuel. If the orbiting gas station is unable to refuel the weather satellite, it will be decommissioned for good, NASA officials said.

Atlantis is scheduled to launch on July 8 at 11:40 a.m. EDT with three astronauts on board including Chris Ferguson, pilot Doug Hurley and mission specialists Sandra Magnus and Rex Walheim.