The Hubble Space Telescope and the International Space Station only exist in their current form due to robotic technology powered by MDA, a Canadian subsidiary of Colorado space giant Maxar. Robot arms maintained or built these essential cosmos facilities, and soon could go much further.
That’s because Maxar wants to bring the same skills into a whole new field, which is refuelling satellites to keep them running longer, and possibly building satellite components in orbit to make launching costs cheaper.
The Restore-L space mission will test these ideas out. It is slated for launch in 2022, which feels like a long way away right now to many business people, but in space terms that’s practically tomorrow. Spacecraft building requires years of design and testing and mating components together.
Maxar says that Restore-L’s focus on fixing up a prolific Earth observation satellite (known as Landsat 7) will be extremely useful for robotic technologies on Earth and in space. NASA wants to send astronauts to the moon in 2024 and to Mars in the 2030s, and these people will need robot helpers to keep the cost affordable. And on Earth, robot arms are already being used in surgeries, mining and other high-risk operations, so there’s direct application for people on planet as well.
Extending satellite lifetimes will also be a boost to Maxar revenues in the long run, since the company’s business is about 35% to 40% focused in Earth observation satellites — those machines that currently last about 15 years in space, but which Maxar wants to keep humming for a lot longer to save on cost.
“We have a great body of technology, but we also understand the business case behind a lot of the missions and mission areas,” said Al Tadros, Maxar’s vice-president of space infrastructure and civil space. “So we can apply these capabilities in a commercial space context.”
Maxar subsidiary MDA is well-known for the Canadarm and Canadarm2 robotic arms that have played a huge role in the human space program, including International Space Station construction and maintenance. Credit: NASA Johnson
Maxar’s large, long-lifetime satellites represent the opposite of what many startups try to achieve these days — launching fleets of small satellites into low Earth orbit and replacing these tiny machines in a matter of months or a couple of years. But Maxar also has a heritage of some 40 years of robotic work in the space field to point to, including name brands that even those outside of the world can recognize, and it maintains its direction is keeping the company commercially nimble.
For example: Maxar subsidiary MDA is best known for Canadarm and Canadarm2. The space shuttle’s Canadarm rescued many a satellite (including Hubble). Canadarm2 literally helped built the International Space Station piece by piece, and eventually was partially repurposed to snag robotic cargo spacecraft (a use beyond what its designers thought was possible in the early 2000s, but which Canadarm2 is very adept at doing). Canada is so invested in this heritage that it plans a Canadarm3 to service NASA’s planned Gateway space station at the moon — no word on who the prime contractor would be yet.
Maxar also delivered the robotic arm for NASA’s Mars 2020 rover (just the latest of Maxar’s Red Planet missions). Mars 2020 has a far-reaching goal of searching for signs of habitability on Mars, and the arm will allow the rover to peer up close at rocks and geologic formations, taking pictures and other data for scientists to analyze. Tadros said this planetary technology — including dealing with matters such as time delays and the ever-present dust — will help in any future moon exploration NASA wants to pursue.
Maxar is in discussions to include a robotic arm on Restore-L that would demonstrate in-orbit assembly and manufacturing. The hope is to show that robots could build stuff such as antennas, with more precise pointing capability than what is possible to make on Earth. (Building an antenna in space means it doesn’t have to worry about the dangerous launch phase of the mission, for which it needs to be over-engineered to survive vibrations and such.)
To make antennas and other components, Maxar suggests that the robot would do additive (3-D) printing, which was already demonstrated in the International Space Station through multiple machines. The big unknown is how additive manufacturing will work in open space, with its extreme temperature fluctuations and its lack of air pressure, but Maxar has tested the idea in a vacuum chamber and is working to overcome these challenges, Tadros said.
He added that additive manufacturing and satellite servicing will help big telecommunications and Earth observation satellites “keep up with the tempo” of the fast-changing industry, and that he looks forward to how Restore-L performs so that Maxar can work on making this test mission an operational concept in just a few years.