In 2016, there were more than 1,400 operational satellites in orbit, compared with 994 in 2012, according to a June report commissioned by the Satellite Industry Assn. and written by Bryce Space and Technology. Many are programmable, meaning their software can be updated throughout their lifespan, which can stretch to 10 or 15 years.
NASA has started to develop some of the necessary technology. In February, the agency launched a sensor called Raven during a cargo resupply launch for the International Space Station. Raven can track vehicles approaching the space station, much like a baseball catcher keeps tabs on an incoming ball long before stretching out an arm to grab it.
"Satellites in low-Earth orbit are traveling anywhere between 15,000 and 18,000 mph," said Ben Reed, deputy division director of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center's satellite servicing projects division, which developed Raven. "We need to put our servicer underneath it with a robotic catcher's mitt in the right place."
That division was born out of previous missions to maintain and service the Hubble Space Telescope.
Astronauts aboard the space shuttle serviced the telescope five times, with the last mission in 2009 focused on replacing circuit boards and adding new sensors. When the shuttle program ended, NASA's ability to access and service space assets disappeared, Reed said.
The division is also developing refueling technologies and is working to eventually launch a fully robotic spacecraft that will go to a satellite in orbit and autonomously capture and refuel it.
The autonomous-capture aspect is important, Reed said, because waiting for a video signal to reach human operators on Earth would be too slow. The round-trip delay between moving that spacecraft's robotic arm and seeing the result on video can take about three seconds.
"We need rapid, rapid, rapid," he said, snapping his fingers. "You don't think when you reach out your hand to catch a set of car keys."
Less time-sensitive tasks, such as cutting wires, will be done telerobotically via human operators.
NASA's satellite servicing project division is not intended to compete with industry but rather transfer the technology it develops to interested parties, Reed said.