Robots needed to repair satellites in orbit

The US Space Force (USSF) became an official branch of the US military on December 20, 2019. In the two years since its launch, the USSF has begun to recruit new service members and plan how to fulfill its mission to protect US assets in space.

As part of the mission planning process, the USSF kicked off several research programs, and related grants, to help develop new technologies and new capabilities to enable the USSF to reach its goals.

The USSF was initially composed of uniformed and civilian personnel conducting and supporting space operations as part of Air Force Space Command. As such, the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) is taking the lead in defining, reviewing and managing all of these research programs.

Repairing and recycling satellites

Since the first satellites were launched in the 1950’s, the technology has matured and evolved to the point that these satellites often outlast their projected lifespans. At that point in a satellite’s life, it can become a hazard to other objects in space.

There are three options available:

Leave the dead satellite in orbit
De-orbit (crash) the satellite
Repair, refuel and repurpose the satellite for another mission – remaining in orbit

Recall that the USSF has the mission to protect US assets in space, so tracking, managing and defending US satellites (and other US space vehicles) is the responsibility of the USSF. The USSF has a vital interest in the future of every satellite in orbit (US owned or otherwise).

The most cost-effective method for repairing, refueling or even de-orbiting a satellite is likely to involve some form of robotics or remotely tele-operated machinery. It is here that the USSF wants to invest in new technology.

Working with Carnegie Mellon University

Researchers from Carnegie Mellon University were selected to head a consortium selected by the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) and the Air Force Office of Scientific Research (AFOSR) to pioneer research into robotic inspection, maintenance and manufacturing of satellites and other structures while in orbit.

The consortium is led by principal investigator Howie Choset, CMU in collaboration with researchers at the University of New Mexico, Texas A&M, and Northrop Grumman Corporation. Together, the group plans to develop systems for intelligent inspection, dexterous maintenance and agile manufacturing of satellites in space. This where the robots come into the picture.

“This is an incredible opportunity to work together toward an ambitious goal,” said Choset, a professor in the Robotics Institute at CMU’s School of Computer Science. “No one knows how to refuel spacecraft such as satellites and telescopes. If we’re successful, we will.”

The work will require expertise in artificial intelligence, hard and soft robotics, additive manufacturing, astrodynamics, estimation theory, control, and space systems. Researchers intend to further develop existing technologies related to self-deployable construction tools, decentralized autonomy, attaching new components to existing structures while in orbit, and intelligent and interactive inspection.

“Our vision for basic and applied research will open a new frontier of opportunities to maximize the utility for satellites and other in-orbit assets by prolonging, enhancing or augmenting their mission capabilities,” Choset said. “This ushers in a new era of satellite capabilities and configurations that will transform the future of space operations.”

AFRL and AFOSR selected the CMU-led consortium’s proposal, “Breaking the ‘Launch Once, Use Once’ Paradigm,” as part of the newly established Space University Research Initiative (SURI). The University of Buffalo will lead a team from Penn State, Georgia Tech, MIT and Purdue in a second SURI proposal focused on tracking and gathering information on objects in space. Each proposal is eligible for up to $1 million in funding per year for three to five years.

CMU’s efforts will be led by Choset and Matt Travers, co-directors of the Robotics Institute’s Biorobotics Lab; and Carmel Majidi, a professor of mechanical engineering in CMU’s College of Engineering who specializes in soft robotics. They will build on previous work by Choset and Travers with Northrop Grumman that evaluated robotics and AI for servicing satellites while in orbit and conducting assembly and manufacturing tasks in space.

The USSF wants you

The US Space Force is actively recruiting for both military and civilian jobs in its ranks. Some of these jobs are likely to include roles working with robots in the future.

Editors note: Research for this story came from a CMU School of Computer Science news article.

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