DARPA's satellite repair robot makes house calls
There are over 400 geosynchronous satellites orbiting 22,000 mi (36,000 km) above the Earth. They are a vital part of global communications and represent billions of dollars in investments, but once they break down or run out of fuel, they're so much tin foil. DARPA has released a video outlining the agency's vision of a mobile robotic servicing system designed to rendezvous with and repair ailing telecommunications satellites.
Part of DARPA's Robotic Servicing of Geosynchronous Satellites (RSGS) project, the concept video shows what such a system might look like and how it would operate. At its center is a robotic servicing vehicle (RSV), which sits in standby in geosynchronous orbit until it's needed, such as when a satellite fails to deploy its solar panels or ends up in the wrong orbit.
The RSV looks pretty much like a satellite with robotic arms and sockets for interchangeable manipulators, which are attached to it like a tool belt. When ordered, it can match orbits with the faulty satellite and fly around it as it collects images and 3D data, which it downloads to Earth for assessment.
Based on the data, mission control develops a servicing plan using computer simulations that tell the RSV which tools to use and how to fix the problem. This service plan is then confirmed by laboratory rehearsals before being transmitted to the RSV.
Once programmed, the RSV tools up, then approaches and docks with the malfunctioning target satellite. After docking, a ground operator makes a detailed assessment of the satellite and compares the new data against the plan. When given the green light, the RSV carries out the repairs or uses its engine to move the satellite into its proper orbit.
DARPA says that it envisions the RSV in orbit within five years. If successful, the DARPA-developed toolkit module will be attached to a commercial space vehicle to create a commercially owned and operated RSV, which could lower the cost of operating geosynchronous satellites.