Pentagon ramps up efforts to develop space robots that can repair satellites in orbit

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Pentagon ramps up efforts to develop space robots that can repair satellites in orbit as it calls on scientists to submit proposals for new program

  • DARPA wants to develop robot repairmen capable of fixing satellites in space
  • The agency said the robot could help save many satellites from going defunct  
  • There are more than 400 U.S. satellites in orbit and some are 22,000 miles away 
  • Exact specifications are unclear but the robot would likely be commercially run  

The U.S. Department of Defense’s most advanced research and development arm is calling upon engineers and scientists to help develop robots capable of remotely repairing satellites in space. 

According to the The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), which is a part of the U.S. Department of Defense, the organization hopes to develop and launch the sophisticated space bots into orbit within the next five years.

Currently, says DARPA, about 400 satellites owned by the government and private industry in the U.S. are orbiting Earth with some more than 20,000 miles away making it service and maintenance all but impossible.

The U.S. Department of Defense is calling upon engineers and scientists to help develop robots capable of remotely repairing satellites in space. An artist rendering of the DARPA robot repairman shows control arms and solar panels for fuel

‘With no prospects for assistance once in orbit, satellites destined for [geosynchronous equatorial orbit]  today are loaded with backup systems and as much fuel as can be accommodated, adding to their complexity, weight and cost,’ reads a release from DARPA.  

‘But what if help was just a service call away?’

When satellites encounter even minor problems — ones that would constitute relatively easy fixes if the devices were accessible to engineers — they are rendered obsolete.  

With the help of what DARPA is calling the Robotic Servicing of Geosynchronous Satellites, that may no longer be the case. 

While the exact specifications and functionality of the robotic space repairmen are unclear, DARPA’s vision for the machine, in its nascent form, call for a craft that is reusable and would be versatile enough to carry out an array of different space missions. 

Also of note is DARPA’s call for what it describes as a ‘commercially owned and operated robotic servicing vehicle’ meaning the robots would likely be controlled by private industry. 

For the private sector, such a robot could be more important than ever.

Amazon recently announced the intentions behind its Kuiper project which would launch thousands of satellites into low-Earth orbit, where they could beam high-speed internet back down to Earth.

Large satellites are costly and instrumental to national security, meteorology, GPS, and more. File photo

Large satellites are costly and instrumental to national security, meteorology, GPS, and more. File photo

Likewise, SpaceX, owned by Tesla CEO Elon Musk, has plowed ahead with a plan that could put as many as 12,000 satellites into low-Earth orbit in the coming years.

Starlink, as Musk’s project is called, is set to begin launching satellites this year and according to the company will come online once 800 satellites are operational.

To help mitigate the costs of having to repeatedly launch new satellites in the event that a one is damage or rendered useless, companies may look to space roving repair bots in the future.

While smaller commercial satellites can cost as little as $1 million, current larger and more sophisticated GPS satellites being developed by the U.S. Air Force carry with them a whopping $577 million price tag and can take a decade to launch according to a report by Sputnik News

As an added benefit, a repair bot might even be able to help mitigate the shocking amount of space junk that has continued to accumulate around Earth’s orbit, endangering future space missions and other orbitals.  

WHAT IS PROJECT KUIPER? 

Amazon confirmed that its mysterious Project Kuiper will aim to position the e-commerce giant as a global ISP.

In the coming years it plans to launch more than 3,000 satellites into orbit where they will beam high-speed internet down to Earth.

The satellites would enter low-Earth orbit where they will be able to deliver high-speed, low-latency internet to million of people.

Competition for the project has already arisen in the form of SpaceX’s Starlink program and the company OneWeb, which launched six satellites this year.

OneWeb’s low-Earth orbiting satellite’s are capable of delivering up to 500 MBPS per user.

 



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