Feeds

Robot spacecraft in zero-gee pumping shocker

DARPA, Boeing claim 'autonomous servicing' now a reality

Secure remote control for conventional and virtual desktops

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. ®

Secure remote control for conventional and virtual desktops

More from The Register

next story
SCREW YOU, Russia! NASA lobs $6.8bn at Boeing AND SpaceX to run space station taxis
Musk charging nearly half as much as Boeing for crew trips
Boffins say they've got Lithium batteries the wrong way around
Surprises at the nano-scale mean our ideas about how they charge could be all wrong
Thought that last dinosaur was BIG? This one's bloody ENORMOUS
Weighed several adult elephants, contend boffins
Europe prepares to INVADE comet: Rosetta landing site chosen
No word yet on whether backup site is labelled 'K'
India's MOM Mars mission makes final course correction
Mangalyaan probe will feel the burn of orbital insertion on September 24th
Cracked it - Vulture 2 power podule fires servos for 4 HOURS
Pixhawk avionics juice issue sorted, onwards to Spaceport America
City hidden beneath England's Stonehenge had HUMAN ABATTOIR. And a pub
Boozed-up ancients drank beer before tearing corpses apart
'Duck face' selfie in SPAAAACE: Rosetta's snap with bird comet
Probe prepares to make first landing on fast-moving rock
prev story

Whitepapers

Providing a secure and efficient Helpdesk
A single remote control platform for user support is be key to providing an efficient helpdesk. Retain full control over the way in which screen and keystroke data is transmitted.
Saudi Petroleum chooses Tegile storage solution
A storage solution that addresses company growth and performance for business-critical applications of caseware archive and search along with other key operational systems.
Security and trust: The backbone of doing business over the internet
Explores the current state of website security and the contributions Symantec is making to help organizations protect critical data and build trust with customers.
Reg Reader Research: SaaS based Email and Office Productivity Tools
Read this Reg reader report which provides advice and guidance for SMBs towards the use of SaaS based email and Office productivity tools.
Security for virtualized datacentres
Legacy security solutions are inefficient due to the architectural differences between physical and virtual environments.