Space

NASA and CSA begin testing satellite refueling on the ISS

NASA and CSA begin testing sat...
The Multifunction Tool uses its attached adapter to manipulate a plug located under the Ambient Cap on the RRM module (Image: NASA/CSA)
The Multifunction Tool uses its attached adapter to manipulate a plug located under the Ambient Cap on the RRM module (Image: NASA/CSA)
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RRM operations begin again on the International Space Station (Image: NASA)
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RRM operations begin again on the International Space Station (Image: NASA)
The RRM Multifunction Tool (Image: NASA)
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The RRM Multifunction Tool (Image: NASA)
The Multifunction Tool uses its attached adapter to manipulate a plug located under the Ambient Cap on the RRM module (Image: NASA/CSA)
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The Multifunction Tool uses its attached adapter to manipulate a plug located under the Ambient Cap on the RRM module (Image: NASA/CSA)
Dextre and the Multifunction Tool carefully position the Tertiary Cap Adapter over the Tertiary Cap Receptacle on the RRM module (Image: NASA/CSA)
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Dextre and the Multifunction Tool carefully position the Tertiary Cap Adapter over the Tertiary Cap Receptacle on the RRM module (Image: NASA/CSA)
The RRM Multifunction Tool removes and stows a T-valve on the RRM module (Image: NASA)
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The RRM Multifunction Tool removes and stows a T-valve on the RRM module (Image: NASA)
The RRM Multifunction Tool (left) approaches the T-Valve Adapter (Image: NASA)
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The RRM Multifunction Tool (left) approaches the T-Valve Adapter (Image: NASA)
Dextre stows the Multifunction Tool with the Tertiary Cap Adapter attached (Image: NASA)
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Dextre stows the Multifunction Tool with the Tertiary Cap Adapter attached (Image: NASA)
RRM T-valve Adapter (Image: NASA)
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RRM T-valve Adapter (Image: NASA)
T-Valve Adapter attached to the Multifunction Tool (Image: NASA)
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T-Valve Adapter attached to the Multifunction Tool (Image: NASA)
Ambient Cap with securing wire (Image: NASA)
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Ambient Cap with securing wire (Image: NASA)
The Multifunction Tool with its T-Valve Adapter closes in to retrieve the T-Valve on the RRM module (Image: NASA)
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The Multifunction Tool with its T-Valve Adapter closes in to retrieve the T-Valve on the RRM module (Image: NASA)
Ambient Cap adapter used in removing the Ambient Cap (Image: NASA)
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Ambient Cap adapter used in removing the Ambient Cap (Image: NASA)
Plug Manipulation Adapter (Image: NASA)
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Plug Manipulation Adapter (Image: NASA)
Tertiary Cap Adapter used to remove protective layering from the RRM satellite fuel valve (Image: NASA)
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Tertiary Cap Adapter used to remove protective layering from the RRM satellite fuel valve (Image: NASA)
Dextre on the ISS (Image: NASA)
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Dextre on the ISS (Image: NASA)
The Robotic Refueling Mission experiment (hanging from carrier, left), as it is being installed in the STS-135 shuttle payload canister at Kennedy Space Center (Image: NASA)
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The Robotic Refueling Mission experiment (hanging from carrier, left), as it is being installed in the STS-135 shuttle payload canister at Kennedy Space Center (Image: NASA)
Dextre moves the RRM Wire Cutter Tool into place (Image: NASA)
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Dextre moves the RRM Wire Cutter Tool into place (Image: NASA)
The Canadian Dextre robot approaches the RRM module on the International Space Station during the RRM Gas Fittings Removal task. (Image: NASA)
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The Canadian Dextre robot approaches the RRM module on the International Space Station during the RRM Gas Fittings Removal task. (Image: NASA)
Dextre on the ISS (Image: NASA)
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Dextre on the ISS (Image: NASA)
Diagram of Dextre (Image: CSA)
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Diagram of Dextre (Image: CSA)
Dextre on the ISS (Image: NASA)
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Dextre on the ISS (Image: NASA)
Dextre on the ISS (Image: NASA)
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Dextre on the ISS (Image: NASA)
RRM being installed on the ISS (Image: NASA)
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RRM being installed on the ISS (Image: NASA)
The Dextre robot moves the RRM Multifunction Tool towards the RRM module (Image: NASA)
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The Dextre robot moves the RRM Multifunction Tool towards the RRM module (Image: NASA)
Dextre's robotic offset tool to help it reach objects (Image: CSA)
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Dextre's robotic offset tool to help it reach objects (Image: CSA)
Dextre's robotic micro-conical tool for manipulating unusually shaped objects (Image: CSA)
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Dextre's robotic micro-conical tool for manipulating unusually shaped objects (Image: CSA)
Dextre's socket extension tool (Image: CSA)
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Dextre's socket extension tool (Image: CSA)
Demonstration model of the Robotic Refueling Mission (RRM) module (Image: NASA/Frankie Martin)
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Demonstration model of the Robotic Refueling Mission (RRM) module (Image: NASA/Frankie Martin)
The Robotic Refueling Mission module on the International Space Station (Image: NASA)
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The Robotic Refueling Mission module on the International Space Station (Image: NASA)
The Robotic Refueling Mission module on the International Space Station (Image: NASA)
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The Robotic Refueling Mission module on the International Space Station (Image: NASA)
The Robotic Refueling Mission module on the International Space Station (Image: NASA)
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The Robotic Refueling Mission module on the International Space Station (Image: NASA)
The Robotic Refueling Mission Tools Team tests an RRM tool at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center (Image: NASA)
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The Robotic Refueling Mission Tools Team tests an RRM tool at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center (Image: NASA)
The Robotic Refueling Mission module installed in Atlantis' cargo bay for the STS-135 flight (Image: NASA)
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The Robotic Refueling Mission module installed in Atlantis' cargo bay for the STS-135 flight (Image: NASA)
Artist's concept of Dextre and the RRM module (Image: NASA)
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Artist's concept of Dextre and the RRM module (Image: NASA)
RRM being installed on the ISS (Image: NASA)
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RRM being installed on the ISS (Image: NASA)
Artist's concept of camera and lights on Dextre's manipulator (Image: NASA)
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Artist's concept of camera and lights on Dextre's manipulator (Image: NASA)
Dextre on the ISS (Image: NASA)
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Dextre on the ISS (Image: NASA)
The Robotic Refueling Mission module on the International Space Station (Image: NASA)
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The Robotic Refueling Mission module on the International Space Station (Image: NASA)
Dextre on the ISS (Image: NASA)
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Dextre on the ISS (Image: NASA)
Dextre removes the RRM Safety Cap Tool from the RRM module during the RRM Gas Fittings Removal task (Image: NASA)
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Dextre removes the RRM Safety Cap Tool from the RRM module during the RRM Gas Fittings Removal task (Image: NASA)
A FANUC industrial robot used as an Earth-side stand-in for Dextre (Image: NASA)
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A FANUC industrial robot used as an Earth-side stand-in for Dextre (Image: NASA)

NASA and the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) have begun practicing satellite refueling in space on a test bed outside the International Space Station (ISS). In a series of tests that started on January 14 and are scheduled to continue until the 25th, the two space agencies are using the Robotic Refueling Module (RRM) and Canada’s Special Purpose Dexterous Manipulator, or Dextre, robot to carry out simulated refueling operations. The purpose of these tests is to develop refueling methods aimed at extending the life of satellites and reducing the amount of space debris orbiting the Earth.

Refueling satellites in orbit is more than a matter of sticking a nozzle in a tank. It requires snipping securing wires, removing and replacing caps, opening and shutting valves, and replacing tools along the way. For this reason, NASA is using a special test bed and robot to carry out simulations under the supervision of the ISS crew.

The washing machine-sized RRM was the last payload delivered by a Space Shuttle to the ISS in July 2011 and is designed for the practicing of several tasks needed to refuel satellites in orbit. Meanwhile, the Dextre robot, sitting on the end of the Canadarm2 robotic arm, is equipped with tools and adapters that allow it to carry out a wide variety of functions for refueling operations.

Diagram of Dextre (Image: CSA)
Diagram of Dextre (Image: CSA)

So far, Dextre and the RRM have completed three days of tests under remote control by a Canadian team at the Johnson Space Center in Houston. On January 14, it grasped the RRM Wire Cutter Tool and pulled it out of the RRM module. It then used this to remove a securing wire from a protective cap. After this, it took the RRM Multifunction Tool and then removed the protective Tertiary Cap from a simulated satellite fuel valve.

On January 15, Dextre stowed the Tertiary Cap and the Tertiary Cap Adaptor used to remove it. Next, the robot used the RRM Wire Cutter to cut wires on the Safety Cap and then on the Actuation Nut on the fuel valve. It then stowed the Wire Cutter Tool and the Multifunction Tool that had been held in each robotic hand.

Demonstration model of the Robotic Refueling Mission (RRM) module (Image: NASA/Frankie Martin)
Demonstration model of the Robotic Refueling Mission (RRM) module (Image: NASA/Frankie Martin)

January 16 saw a pause in the test while software on Canadarm2 was checked for a possible fault, but resumed on January 17 when Dextre unstowed the RRM Safety Cap Tool from the RRM module, then used it to release the launch torque and check out the functionality of the Safety Cap Receptacle.

Three more days of tests are scheduled until January 25. Day Four will see Dextre removing the Safety Cap and on Day Five Dextre will attach a nozzle that will allow ethanol to transfer through a tube for a simulated refueling on Day Six.

The video below outlines the refueling test.

Source: NASA

Refueling Satellites with Robots!

1 comment
Tim Escher
Looking at the closeups of the intricately machined one-of-a-kind parts on this thing...holy cow. One now sees where that big $$$ goes.