Space Bots

Space Bots

Image courtesy of NASA

Space Bots
| Published Wednesday, March 12, 2014 |

By Thursday Review staff

You know those TV commercials from companies like Siemens and GE that show manufacturing robots helpfully facilitating repairs to each other so that they can quickly get back to the business of making cars or generators or widgets on their assembly line? Well, launch that notion out into Earth orbit and then envision worker-satellites making repairs and upgrades to other satellites.

NASA and the U.S. Defense Department are proposing—and testing—just such a scenario.

The modest goal is to reduce the cost of launching expensive satellites into space, then, after a decade or so, watching helplessly as the orbiting hardware deteriorates, runs out of battery life, becomes obsolete, or simply loses its battles with gravity and falls to Earth—all now common occurrences in the busy traffic lanes of space. When a satellite runs into problems, there is little that NASA or any military agency can do, and the same rules apply to every other nation with hardware circling the Earth.

At great expense and with enormous exertion, the U.S. has occasionally implemented human repairs to the most sensitive or expensive of satellites, as it did in 1994 when the reflective lens on the Hubble Space Telescope—discovered to be defective only weeks after the Hubble was placed in orbit in April 1990—was accommodated with a new camera package and upgraded software, all installed by specially-trained astronauts. To get the Hubble into space initially has been expensive enough: $2.5 billion or more. Making those critical repairs to the lens and the optical systems cost another four years and an extra $1 billion.

With ever-more sensitive and complex hardware being launched into space, NASA and the Pentagon hope to minimize such costly problems by designing worker satellites specially outfitted for making repairs and upgrades, and without sending astronauts with tools and duct tape. They also want satellite components to be interchangeable and easily interlocking. A redundant part for a communications satellite, for instance, could be easily and quickly deployed as a replacement parts for a missile-tracking satellite. In this sense, satellites would share that trait with newer personal computers already designed to accept upgrades and plug-ins.

The other advantage of such a program would be the ease of construction of satellites. More complex satellites may involve much larger body diameters and wider arrays of solar panels and sensitive antennae. By making the components as easy to snap together as Lego, then, launching those pieces into orbit using smaller rockets, millions of dollars can be saved over the long haul. Satellites with robotic arms and opposable digits can assemble the separate components once they are in space.

Implementation is still a few years away, and the program, called “Phoenix,” is only funded to the tune of about $45 million, not nearly enough to begin full-scale operations. But with severe budget cuts on the horizon for the Pentagon, and with similar restrictions on a downsized NASA, the program may become a useful way to balance fiscal restraint with the dizzying demands of new technologies and global security.

Related Thursday Review articles:

Battles Over Military Spending; R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; Tuesday, February 25, 2014.

Machine Chat (Or, I, Drill Head); Thursday Review; Tuesday, January 28, 2014.