NASA's highly anticipated Robotic Refueling Mission (RRM) began operations on the International Space Station with the Canadian Dextre robot and RRM tools March 7-9, 2012, marking important milestones in satellite-servicing technology and the use of the space station robotic capabilities.
A joint effort between NASA and the Canadian Space Agency (CSA), RRM is an external station experiment designed to demonstrate the technologies, tools, and techniques needed to robotically service and refuel satellites in orbit, especially those not built with servicing in mind. RRM represents the first time the space station's Dextre robot is used for technology research and development, moving it beyond robotic maintenance of the orbiting superstructure.
The RRM Gas Fittings Removal task represents the first use of RRM tools in orbit. During the task, robot operators at NASA's Johnson Space Center remotely control Dextre to retrieve RRM tools and go through the tasks required to remove representative fittings (located on the RRM module) used on many spacecraft for filling various fluids and gases prior to launch. Subsequent RRM operations include practicing robotic satellite refueling and servicing tasks using Dextre, RRM tools, and the satellite piece parts and interfaces contained within and covering the cube-shaped RRM module.
The International Space Station played a critical role in RRM development. "RRM showcases the best of what the International Space Station can offer as a test bed for state-of-the-art space technologies," says Frank Cepollina, veteran leader of five Hubble Space Telescope servicing missions and Associate Director of the Satellite Servicing Capabilities Office (SSCO) at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md.
"The Hubble servicing missions taught us the importance and value of getting innovative, cutting-edge technologies to orbit quickly to deliver great results," continued Cepollina. "With the established infrastructure that the space station provides, our RRM team had support as we conceived, designed, built, and flew the RRM demo to space station in 18 months -- a timeline that many declared impossible."
The impact of the ISS as a useful technology test bed cannot be overstated, he said. "Fresh satellite-servicing technologies will be demonstrated in a real space environment within months instead of years. This is huge. This represents real progress in space technology advancement."
Launched to the space station in July 2011 aboard the last space shuttle mission (STS-135), RRM is the first in-orbit demonstration to test, prove and advance the technology needed to perform robotic servicing on spacecraft not designed for refueling and repair. RRM and Dextre will proceed through several tasks over about the next two years designed to demonstrate a wide array of servicing capabilities. RRM results are expected to reduce the risks associated with satellite servicing as well as lay the foundation and encourage future robotic servicing missions. Such future missions could include the repair and repositioning of orbiting satellites.
"The significance of RRM is that it demonstrates that robotic satellite-servicing technology exists now and it works correctly on orbit," says Benjamin Reed, Deputy Project Manager of SSCO.