A robotic troubleshooter could help increase life span of satellite missions

Refuelling robot arrives at ISS

An experimental robot testing concepts for refuelling and possible mending of satellites in orbit has started its mission at the International Space Station.

Called VIPIR, for Visual Inspection Poseable Invertebrate Robot, the smart machine developed by Nasa is already the second generation of refuelling test robots designed to help prolong the life expectancy of spacecraft. It will continue with the work started by Canadian robot Dextre in 2012, testing further concepts and tools.

“The common thread is building up NASA’s collection of enabling satellite-servicing capabilities,” said Benjamin Reed, deputy project manager of the Satellite Servicing Capabilities Office. “Every capability translates into another option a satellite owner could potentially choose to keep his or her satellite operating longer and performing optimally.”

Equipped with three advanced cameras, VIPIR will be tested in scenarios simulating unexpected accidents that could happen during servicing missions.

One of the three VIPIR cameras is the smallest ever sent to space by Nasa. So far, such tiny cameras have only been used in medical applications. The camera, only 1.2mm in size is placed inside a 1m long flexible arm and could be controlled remotely from the Earth.

Offering a rather modest resolution, only 224 × 224 pixels, the camera is optimal for close range inspection, obtaining images from the distance of about two or three centimetres.

The robot’s second camera with an 8 to 24mm focus will add further information by providing details as small as half a millimetre. The third camera, with a 6mm focus, will serve as remote eyes for the technicians in the control centre on Earth, allowing them to control the robot’s instruments.

Nasa hopes to test the concept in real life conditions by 2020.

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