Space: Robotic Repair Birds in Orbit


March 15, 2007: On March 8th, the United States used an Atlas 5 rocket to put six military satellites in orbit. Multiple satellites in one launcher is nothing new, but two of the military satellites are part of a big step forward in satellite technology. This experiment is called Orbital Express, and one of the satellites will test robotic hardware and software, to do maintenance work on the other bird. With satellites often costing half a billion dollars each, it's become cost effective to do repairs, upgrades and refueling while the costly satellite is still up there. Unlike in the past, satellites can be built to last for a decade or more, especially if they can be serviced. Now, the only option is to get the Space Shuttle to do it, but that can cost over a hundred million dollars. Robotic repairs are a lot cheaper. Orbital Express will be a final test on what engineers have been demanding for decades. Letting robots do the work up there, not people.

Many of these service missions are just for refueling satellites, which often have small jets, used to reposition themselves. But other can replace worn or damaged components. Satellites will have to be designed to accommodate Orbital Express birds tools and capabilities. But once robots are doing the satellite servicing, the cost of operating satellites will come down 50 percent or more in a decade or so.


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