NASA Tests Satellite Refueling Technology


George Diller: Satellites play vital roles
in everyday life. From weather observations to navigation to
communications, Earth-orbiting spacecraft now are so prevalent they could easily be taken for
granted. Since April 2011, engineers at NASA’s Kennedy
Space Center in Florida have partnered with the Satellite Servicing Capabilities Office
at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland to develop robotic satellite servicing technologies
necessary to bring in-orbit inspection, repair, refueling, component replacement and
assembly capabilities to extend the life of these important spacecraft. The orbital path of 22,000 miles above Earth
is home to more than 400 satellites serving customers worldwide, but occasionally these
spacecraft fail or simply run out of maneuvering propellant. A team at Kennedy, collaborating with counterparts
at Goddard, recently demonstrated groundbreaking technology that could add years
of service to these satellites. Pepper Phillips: “As Kennedy has matured its
expertise in servicing spacecraft and launch vehicles, we’ve worked with a number of centers
in servicing their particular aspect and spacecraft.” George Diller: Engineers at Goddard want to
take advantage of Kennedy’s experience in launch vehicle and satellite processing, as well
as propellant loading. This expertise is being applied to help design
refueling components of a robotic servicing spacecraft. Brian Nufer: “Goddard came to KSC near the
end of the shuttle program so we could leverage all of our expertise in hypergolics.” George Diller: Kennedy’s know-how gained from
processing and launching spacecraft developed at other NASA centers now is allowing
its employees to branch out and become a part of the process of designing a satellite. Pepper Phillips: “We’ve primarily been servicing
spacecraft and vehicles using our ground systems and doing some spacecraft repair.
For this particular aspect, we’re actually designing flight hardware.” George Diller: Over the past few years, the
team at Kennedy has been developing and testing the critical hypergolic propellant transfer
system for a servicing satellite. Thomas Aranyos: “We are actually starting
a unique role which is designing, developing and testing eventual satellite
hardware that will be used in future refueling a satellite.” George Diller: The most recent run-through
took place in the Florida spaceport’s Payload Hazardous Servicing Facility, or PHSF,
and focused on moving from a proof-of-concept phase to building the first engineering development
unit. During February 2014, a flight-like prototype
demonstrated that a robotically operated satellite could remotely refuel another orbiting spacecraft
not originally designed to be refueled. Brian Nufer: “This is an extremely unique
test that’s never been done, as far as we know, anywhere in the world. We’re testing with
hypergolic oxidizer, nitrogen tetroxide. An end-to-end system that does the servicing
of a satellite in orbit.” George Diller: The demonstration was called
RROxiTT for Remote Robotic Oxidizer Transfer Test. A Goddard-built robotic arm was shipped
to Kennedy for the operation. It has the capability to connect to a simulated
satellite servicing panel, including its propellant fill and drain valves. For the operation, the Kennedy
team developed the propellant transfer assembly, also called
the PTA. From 800 miles away in Maryland, Goddard engineers
remotely controlled the robotic arm’s connection to the Kennedy-provided propellant
transfer system and hose delivery assembly hooking it up to the simulated client satellite’s
fill-drain valve, all located in Kennedy’s PHSF in Florida. Thomas Aranyos: “This project has not only
been a challenge, but it’s been a lot of fun for the entire team. And I have to say, I’ve
never had to ask for a volunteer for this project.” Pepper Phillips: “KSC has largely focused
on ground processing and ground ops., and we’ve earned our expertise in that area. In this
realm, it’s literally spacecraft development work and it’s venturing out beyond traditionally KSC. For our team it’s expanding their capabilities. It’s making them better engineers and better
scientists.”

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