Feeds

Robot spacecraft in zero-gee pumping shocker

DARPA, Boeing claim 'autonomous servicing' now a reality

The Power of One Infographic

Two unmanned space platforms have autonomously come together 300 miles above the earth, carrying out a "pump fluid transfer" in a milestone for robot sex automated satellite servicing.

A Boeing Autonomous Space Transport Robotic Operations (ASTRO) vehicle and a NextSat serviceable-satellite demonstrator were launched together aboard an Atlas rocket on 8 March. Following launch there were software problems which caused difficulties in orienting the machines, but these were overcome by ground engineers and the two spacecraft duly separated.

The mating and fluid-transfer demonstration was achieved two days ago, according to a Boeing release. The NextSat received 32lb of pressurised hydrazine from ASTRO, and a further 17lb by pumping.

Rather than (deeply) specialist robot smut, the quarter-billion-dollar Orbital Express programme is intended to demonstrate that satellites can be refuelled and serviced by autonomous systems, which could greatly extend their useful life span on some platforms.

In particular, the US military's extensive network of spy satellites could find this useful. Surveillance birds need to change orbit fairly frequently so as to get a good look at locations of interest, and each orbit change uses up thruster fuel. Once all a satellite's manoeuvring juice is gone, it has tended to become useless.

It's no surprise, then, that the Defence Advanced Projects Research Agency (DARPA) is heavily involved in Orbital Express. But NASA is in there too, as ordinary civilian space efforts could also find robot satellite fill-ups useful. Some funding has also come from corporate sources, with Boeing stating last year that it has contributed "millions...a very significant fraction of the overall cost". Boeing's ASTRO service-bot can do more than just squirt thruster fuel. During this week's demo, it successfully plugged a battery into NextSat using a robotic arm.

At present, ASTRO operates under a low level of autonomy, needing to ask for approval to proceed (ATP) fairly frequently, not unlike a Windows computer. According to Boeing, however, "future demonstrations will require fewer ATPs, allowing Orbital Express to conduct flight activities with increased autonomy. At the highest autonomy levels, no ATPs are required".

With conventional human astronauts having demonstrated their fallibility in recent months, it could be that yet more people are soon to lose job-related satisfaction opportunities to the robot hordes. ®

Eight steps to building an HP BladeSystem

More from The Register

next story
Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 claimed lives of HIV/AIDS cure scientists
Researchers, advocates, health workers among those on shot-down plane
Forty-five years ago: FOOTPRINTS FOUND ON MOON
NASA won't be back any time soon, sadly
The Sun took a day off last week and made NO sunspots
Someone needs to get that lazy star cooking again before things get cold around here
Mwa-ha-ha-ha! Eccentric billionaire Musk gets his PRIVATE SPACEPORT
In the Lone Star State, perhaps appropriately enough
MARS NEEDS OCEANS to support life - and so do exoplanets
Just being in the Goldilocks zone doesn't mean there'll be anyone to eat the porridge
Diary note: Pluto's close-up is a year from … now!
New Horizons is less than a year from the dwarf planet
Boffins discuss AI space program at hush-hush IARPA confab
IBM, MIT, plenty of others invited to fill Uncle Sam's spy toolchest, but where's Google?
prev story

Whitepapers

Reducing security risks from open source software
Follow a few strategies and your organization can gain the full benefits of open source and the cloud without compromising the security of your applications.
Consolidation: The Foundation for IT Business Transformation
In this whitepaper learn how effective consolidation of IT and business resources can enable multiple, meaningful business benefits.
Application security programs and practises
Follow a few strategies and your organization can gain the full benefits of open source and the cloud without compromising the security of your applications.
Boost IT visibility and business value
How building a great service catalog relieves pressure points and demonstrates the value of IT service management.
Consolidation: the foundation for IT and business transformation
In this whitepaper learn how effective consolidation of IT and business resources can enable multiple, meaningful business benefits.