Orbital Inspectors

If the space station gets smacked by a micrometeoroid, an array of devices can find—and fix—the damage.

This is what a gecko-based robot would look like if it could use the gripping forces in its gecko toes to keep from floating away from the space station. The illustration is of a concept called LEMUR—Legged Excursion Mechanical Utility Rover. (Henry Kline/NASA JPL)
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Technologies developed to inspect and repair the space station could also be useful for any of the more than 1,000 active satellites in orbit. In 2011, NASA affixed the Robotic Refueling Module to the exterior of the station and is currently working on the second phase: testing its inspection tool, VIPIR, for Visual Inspection Poseable Invertebrate Robot. Groups like DARPA and ATK are also working on the problem; representatives from both were at a conference last August on the future of on-orbit servicing, and DARPA officials there said they hope to get their Phoenix satellite inspect-and-repair project working by 2019.

Developing any of the inspection and repair technologies will be costly, and the research may be funded by private industry—but not necessarily the private space industry. The petroleum and nuclear power industries, for example, have a great need for robotic vehicles and imagers that can withstand extreme environments, whether underground or at the bottom of the ocean or in a place filled with radiation.

“NASA doesn’t have enough money to do it itself, and other industries want the same kind of thing,” Studor says. “Let’s show [industry] that there’s a path to get what they want if they invest in this technology.”

Whether the funds are from private or public organizations, it would be wise to increase investments in these technologies now so that if—or more likely, when—a piece of orbital debris comes along one day and punches through a space station wall, the astronauts can deal with it swiftly instead of abandoning ship.

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