An orbiting filling station will keep satellites aloft

October 26, 1999

A robot that can refuel and service America's spy satellites while they are in orbit is being developed by Department of Defense researchers. The new system could extend a satellite's life many times over, as it would no longer drop out of orbit and burn up once its fuel was all used.

The robot refueller, dubbed the autonomous space transporter and robotic orbiter (ASTRO), will shuttle back and forth between the spy satellite and fuel dumps stationed in holding orbits, says David Whelan, director of the tactical technology office at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).

With today's satellites, it is easy for an enemy to predict the craft's position, unless it changes course. But course changes use up the satellite's limited supply of hydrazine fuel and shorten its life. With a steady supply of fuel available to their satellites, controllers will be able to manoeuvre them at will, making their orbits more difficult to predict.

The development of ASTRO would revolutionise satellite operators' attitudes. "If an aeroplane runs out of fuel you don't throw it away," says Charles Miller of Constellation Services International in Dayton, Ohio. And yet, he says, that is precisely what happens with satellites costing as much as $1 billion apiece.

Miller believes a refuelling infrastructure is inevitable. His company has been set up to develop a satellite retrieval and repair service along similar lines for commercial telecoms and broadcasting satellites. The DARPA programme will rely on future military satellites being fitted with docking stations that allow them to be refuelled.

DARPA has secured $5 million to begin designing ASTRO, and expects to commission aerospace contractors to start building prototypes next year. By building satellites with modular electronics systems, the robot could also be used to replace faulty or outdated on-board systems.
Author: Duncan Graham-Rowe


New Scientist

Related Satellite Articles from Brightsurf:

NASA satellite gives a hello to tropical storm Dolly
During the morning of June 23, the fourth system in the Northern Atlantic Ocean was a subtropical depression.

Observing phytoplankton via satellite
Thanks to a new algorithm, researchers at the AWI can now use satellite data to determine in which parts of the ocean certain types of phytoplankton are dominant.

The Internet of Things by satellite will become increasingly accessible
Thanks to the implementation of advanced random access schemes using efficient, low complexity algorithms.

Satellite broken? Smart satellites to the rescue
The University of Cincinnati is developing robotic networks that can work independently but collaboratively on a common task.

Satellite images reveal global poverty
How far have we come in achieving the UN's sustainable development goals that we are committed to nationally and internationally?

Satellite data exposes looting
Globally archaeological heritage is under threat by looting. The destruction of archaeological sites obliterates the basis for our understanding of ancient cultures and we lose our shared human past.

NASA satellite finds 16W now subtropical
NASA-NOAA's Suomi NPP satellite found 16W was still being battered by wind shear after transitioning into an extra-tropical cyclone.

How far to go for satellite cloud image forecasting into operation
Simulated satellite cloud images not only have the visualization of cloud imagery, but also can reflect more information about the model.

NASA confirms re-discovered IMAGE satellite
The identity of the satellite re-discovered on Jan. 20, 2018, has been confirmed as NASA's IMAGE satellite.

Satellite keeps an eye on US holiday travel weather
A satellite view of the US on Dec. 22 revealed holiday travelers on both coasts are running into wet weather.

Read More: Satellite News and Satellite Current Events is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to