On January 25, Dextre, a robotic manipulator aboard the International Space Station, completed a Robotic Refueling Mission demonstration that may be the first step towards achieving on-orbit refueling of satellites.
“I don’t want to sound overly dramatic, but it is, or it might be, the start of what could be a revolution or a new era in how satellites are built and flown in space,” said deputy program manager Benjamin Reed.
Of course, this is not the first time that a spacecraft has been refueled on orbit. ISS itself is refueled all the time, as were prior space stations. However, those space stations were designed to be refueled and sported systems accessible for that purpose. The Robotic Refueling Mission, on the other hand, is targeting satellites that were not designed to be refueled. Such capability would make the technology much more useful in potentially reclaiming defunct satellites already on orbit. But it is also a more difficult task, and Dextre has been hard at work cutting away triple seals, removing caps, and snipping through wires that were never designed to be removed. On January 25, Dextre successfully threaded a nozzle onto the test platform’s fuel valve and pumped 1.3 liters of liquid ethanol into the test bed’s tank without spilling a drop.
Next up for the program is to work on dealing with thermal insulation and accessing a satellite’s electrical receptacle. So far, there are no firm missions planned to use the technology; Intelsat cancelled an earlier agreement with Dextre’s designer MDA to extend the operational life of its satellite fleet. Refueling will likely become more popular once proven out since the capability of extending satellite lifespan could save operators millions of dollars normally spent to launch replacements.
Below, get a good look at Dextre and his refueling test platform: