Space robots are coming
Aerospace companies planning a squad of repair robots
Hundreds of millions of dollars can go into the school-bus-sized satellites that orbit Earth and provide services such as broadband internet, broadcasting and military surveillance.
But if a part breaks or a satellite runs out of fuel, there’s no way to send help.
Commercial industry and government agencies believe they’re getting close to an answer — robot repairs.
The idea is to extend the lives of satellites with in-orbit satellite servicing, with robotic spacecraft traveling from satellite to satellite to refuel them and fix problems.
Industry watchers see the heightened activity as commercial validation for a 30-year-old idea that, until recently, attracted only government dollars.
“I think it could be a sustainable market,” said Carissa Christensen, CEO of space analytic consulting business Bryce Space and Technology.
One of the first such commercial robot technicians is expected to launch next year, but analysts say a mature market still is at least 10 years away. Not only do the spacecraft and capabilities still need to be fine-tuned, but the space industry, which is relatively conservative, also will want to see several demonstrations before signing on.
“It’s an environment where you can’t make mistakes,” said Steve Oldham, senior vice president of strategic business development at SSL, a division of San Francisco-based Maxar Technologies that has such a project.
Technology still needs to advance to the point where robots become capable service workers. Already, though, the number of satellites that will need servicing is rising rapidly.
In 2016, there were more than 1,400 operational satellites in orbit, compared to 994 in 2012, according to a June report commissioned by the Satellite Industry Association trade group and written by Bryce Space and Technology.
Many are programmable, meaning their software can be updated throughout their life spans, which can stretch to 10 or 15 years.
NASA has started to develop some of the necessary technology. In February, the space agency launched a sensor called Raven during a cargo resupply mission for the International Space Station. Raven can track vehicles approaching the space station before stretching out an arm to grab it.
“Satellites in low-Earth orbit are traveling anywhere between 15,000 and 18,000 mph,” said Ben Reed, deputy division director of NASA Goddard Space Flight Center’s satellite servicing projects division, which developed Raven. “We need to put our servicer underneath it with a robotic catcher’s mitt in the right place.”