CMU-Led Consortium to Create Robotics Technology to Service Satellites in Orbit

Around 6,500 satellites are in orbit, but only approximately half of them are operational. When a satellite breaks down or runs out of fuel, it is basically useless. Repairs, upgrades or maintenance are virtually impossible in orbit.

CMU-Led Consortium to Create Robotics Technology to Service Satellites in Orbit.
SCS researchers will head a consortium to develop ways to robotically inspect, maintain and manufacture satellites and other structures in orbit, much like Northrop Grumman’s Mission Robotic Vehicle is using its robotic arm to attach a service a satellite in this rendering. (Image Credit: Northrop Grumman Corporation).

It is a launch once, use once scenario.

However, as satellites have become more powerful, their operators regularly witness that fleets outlast their estimated lifespans and need new technology, refueling, repairs or maintenance to remain relevant, competitive and operational.

Scientists from Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) will lead a consortium nominated by the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) and the Air Force Office of Scientific Research (AFOSR) to pioneer research into robotic inspection, maintenance, and engineering of satellites and other structures while in orbit.

Guided by principal investigator Howie Choset, CMU will work together with scientists at the University of New Mexico, Texas A&M and Northrop Grumman Corporation to build systems for intelligent inspection, agile manufacturing and dexterous maintenance of satellites in space.

This is an incredible opportunity to work together toward an ambitious goal. No one knows how to refuel spacecraft such as satellites and telescopes. If we're successful, we will.

Howie Choset, Principal Investigator and Professor, Robotics Institute, School of Computer Science, CMU

The work will necessitate proficiency in hard and soft robotics, artificial intelligence, additive manufacturing, estimation theory, control, astrodynamics and space systems.

Researchers plan to further develop current technologies associated with self-deployable construction tools, attaching new components to current structures while in orbit, decentralized autonomy 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. This ushers in a new era of satellite capabilities and configurations that will transform the future of space operations.

Howie Choset, Principal Investigator and Professor, Robotics Institute, School of Computer Science, CMU

AFRL and AFOSR chose the CMU-led consortium's proposal, "Breaking the 'Launch Once, Use Once' Paradigm," as part of the recently set up Space University Research Initiative (SURI).

The University of Buffalo will lead a team from MIT. Penn State, Georgia Tech, and Purdue in a second SURI proposal aimed at tracking and collecting data on objects in space. Each proposal is qualified for up to $1 million in funding annually for 3-5 years.

CMU's efforts will be guided 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 is an expert in soft robotics. They will build on earlier efforts by Choset and Travers with Northrop Grumman that assessed robotics and AI for servicing satellites while in orbit and carrying out assembly and manufacturing operations in space.

Northrop Grumman has already enjoyed success with its Mission Extension Vehicles, the first of its kind that can dock with orbiting satellites with exhausted fuel supplies and offer propulsion and pointing control — prolonging their useful service lives.

Previously, CMU has collaborated with the company on the leading-edge satellite-servicing vehicles by contributing to vehicle dynamics in Northrop Grumman's rendezvous, proximity operations and docking lab.

Servicing satellites in orbit will soon become vital to the operations of government and commercial missions. Our goal is to develop and transition critical concepts from this consortium to further revolutionize technologies for both government and commercial use. This three-way partnership among academia, government and industry will help play a critical role in enhancing Department of Defense-relevant capability in the space domain.

Andy Kwas, Engineering Systems Architect, Northrop Grumman Corporation 

The University of New Mexico's Agile Manufacturing (AgMan) Lab, a collaborative effort between the university and AFRL, offers advanced robotics and automation equipment intended for producing on-orbit advanced manufacturing.

The lab is headed by Professor Rafael Fierro in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering in the School of Engineering, who will direct the university's contributions to the consortium. Fierro's research comprises advanced robotic manipulation for space operations.

"The AgMan Lab and Fierro's group make an ideal partner to transition technology into the Air Force," Choset stated.

Manoranjan Majji, an associate professor of aerospace engineering, will lead Texas A&M's contributions. The university's Land Air and Space Robotics Lab has several years of experience in satellite rendezvous, docking and proximity operations and premier ground robot emulation.

CMU has two other active Texas A&M partnerships that will provide their contributions to the SURI project.

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