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Faulty satellite? Robot geek squad is on the horizon

Samantha Masunaga, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Science & Technology News

Hundreds of millions of dollars can go into the school bus-sized satellites that blast into orbit above Earth and provide services including broadband internet, broadcasting and military surveillance.

But if a part breaks or a satellite runs out of fuel, there's no way to send help.

Commercial industry and government agencies believe they're getting close to having an answer: robot repairs.

The idea is to extend the lives of satellites through on-orbit satellite servicing, in which robotic spacecraft essentially act as the AAA roadside service trucks of space, traveling from satellite to satellite to refuel them and fix problems.

On a spring day earlier this year in Greenbelt, Md., 30 companies gathered at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center to learn about the technology and view hardware for on-orbit satellite servicing. They ranged from spacecraft makers to purveyors of robot arms and even insurance brokers. A second event is planned for January.

Industry watchers see the heightened activity as commercial validation for a 30-year-old idea that, until recently, attracted only government dollars.

 

"I think it could be a sustainable market," said Carissa Christensen, chief executive of space analytic consulting firm Bryce Space and Technology.

One of the first such commercial robot technicians is set to launch next year, but analysts say a mature market is still at least 10 years away. Not only do the spacecraft and capabilities still need to be fine-tuned, but the space industry, which is relatively conservative, will want to see several demonstrations before signing on.

"It's an environment where you can't make mistakes," said Steve Oldham, senior vice president of strategic business development at SSL, a division of San Francisco-based Maxar Technologies that has such a project in the works.

Technology still needs to advance to the point where robots become capable service workers. But the number of satellites that will need servicing is rising rapidly.

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