“Fewer astronauts, more robots” is the call of three European aerospace engineers, Alex Ellery, Joerg Kreidsel and Bernd Sommer. They believe that sending humans in to space to repair the ISS or even Hubble, are wasteful, expensive, and aren’t sending the right message for the space community.
In a journal article written for Acta Astronautica, the trio argues that while these missions may present a certain modicum of the spectacular, they aren’t sustainable. What they want is for the space community to agree to build space robots that, on command, can redirect themselves to repair whatever satellite is in need of repair.
This is not a foreign idea either. Approximately a year ago the Pentagon used a robot known as ASTRO (Autonomous Space Transport Robotic Operations), a now-decommissioned robot that once belonged to the Pentagon’s Orbital Express satellites, to fix NextSat, a prototype serviceable craft. In the last 5 months of its life, ASTRO managed to refuel, transfer hardware, and replace a dead battery, all with minimal assistance from the ground.
The trio believes that by using automated robots, the overall cost of maintaining satellites will drop. However the researchers have noted that progress has been slow to minimize the need for repair in satellites. Navigation and thrusters are often failing, and as a result the cost of replacing them, and the insurance, is expensive.
"Scepticism of robotic in-orbit servicing is wasting the space sector vast amounts of money," the trio wrote in their article. "There are few industries which would willingly spend $100 million on highly designed, long-lived hardware without the provision for repair and upgrade."
Given the expense of current repair schemes, it is a surprise to realize that the industry has not made moves to diminish costs. Presumably the next decade will see a surge in unmanned robots patrolling our skies.
Posted by Josh Hill.
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