At some point during their limited lifespan, satellites tend to run out a fuel or require other bits of servicing while they’re in the middle of orbiting the Earth. Unfortunately, most become nothing more than Earth-orbiting space junk once their usefulness has expired, and dealing with the ongoing space junk problem is one of things NASA aims to do.
With a new initiative, NASA hopes to be able to both refuel and service the hardware of satellites while they’re in orbit around the Earth.
Image Credit: Restore L/NASA
They’ve officially signed a $127 million contract with Restore L/Loral of Paulo Alto, California for the Restore L spacecraft, which will be capable of refueling and servicing satellites that are already orbiting the Earth, where it is needed.
Restore L could launch into space and begin working like a traveling gas station as soon as 2020, where it will begin its operations on satellites in low-Earth orbit, but the company is being given at least five years to build a usable spacecraft that can perform these tasks.
After the idea proves itself to be effective, NASA may work on plans to re-fuel satellites at other altitudes of orbit, or perhaps even tap into the unused potential of many other commercial space companies around the country.
A pair of special robotic arms will also be built into the Restore L servicing spacecraft, which will allow it to perform hardware maintenance and more on certain Earth-orbiting satellites in addition to re-fueling them.
The inspiration behind getting this project going was undoubtedly sparked by China’s success in re-fueling one of their own Earth-orbiting satellites this past Summer. Although the United States wasn’t the first to attempt this maneuver, you can bet that NASA has ‘perfecting’ the process in mind.
It should be interesting to see how the re-fueling initiative changes the satellite market and fixes the space junk problem. Another benefit includes having longer-lasting satellites, which will be able to rake in more revenue over time for the companies that use them.
Perhaps soon, we won’t have to send up satellite replacements every time one simply runs out of fuel, leaving the old one to just float around uselessly in orbit around the Earth.