Ken Kremer of Spaceflight magazine, Universe Today & AAAP
From March 7 to 9, a combined team of American and Canadian engineers successfully performed groundbreaking robotics research aboard the ISS during first-of-its-kind joint operations between NASA’s new Robotic Refueling Mission (RRM) experiment – mounted on the stations exterior backbone truss – andCanada’s Dextre robot “handyman”.
The RRM robotics technology effort aims to repair and refuel already orbiting space satellites – never intended for refurbishment – and thereby extend their operational lifetimes by several years, resulting in billions of dollars in cost savings for the government and commercial space sectors. The project is a joint effort between NASA and CSA .
Gleeful researchers shouted “Yeah !!” after the first ever dual application of RRM and Dextre as a technology test bed to demonstrate that a remotely controlled robot in the vacuum of space could accomplish delicate work tasks requiring extremely precise motion control.
“After dedicating many months of professional and personal time to RRM, it was a great emotional rush and a reassurance for me to see the first video stream from an RRM tool,” Justin Cassidy told me in a post-op interview. Cassidy is RRM Hardware Manager at the NASA Goddard Spaceflight Center in Greenbelt,Maryland.
The 500 pound, washing machine sized RRM experiment was carried to orbit inside the cargo bay of Space Shuttle Atlantisduring July 2011 on final shuttle mission STS-135.
I was quite fortunate to arrange an exclusive pre-launch visit to the actual RRM unit inside the Space Station Processing Facility (SSPF) at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) prior to loading aboard Atlantis. Cassidy also gave me a detailed RRM briefing at the KSC Press Site using a high fidelity mockup of the unit and with hands-on interaction to simulate servicing and maintenance techniques with the different satellite work tools, which have heritage in the Hubble Servicing Missions.
All of the RRM robotic operations at the station were remotely controlled by flight controllers on the ground, freeing up the human crew to conduct other important scientific research.
On day one of ISS ops, mission controllers on Earth deftly maneuvered the 12-foot (3.7-meter) long Dextre “handyman” to the RRM experiment box using the space station’s Canadian built robotic arm (SSRMS). Under ground-based remote control, Dextre’s “hand” grasped and comprehensively inspected three of the four specialized satellite work tools housed inside the RRM stowage area. The Safety Cap Tool, the Wire Cutter and Blanket Manipulation Tool, and the Multifunction Tool were all functioning perfectly.
“Our teams mechanically latched the Canadian “Dextre” robot’s “hand” onto the RRM Safety Cap Tool (SCT) to mate it with the SCT’s integral electronics box and see the first on orbit video,” Cassidy explained. “Our team burst into a shout out of “Yeah!” to commend this successful electrical functional system checkout.”
The key task was to use the Wire Cutter Tool to meticulously cut two extremely thin satellite lock wires made of steel and measuring just 20 thousandths of an inch (0.5 millimeter) in diameter. During a total of about 43 hours of on-orbit operations, Dextre used all three tools to carry out tasks aimed at testing how well a variety of representative gas fittings, valves, screws and seals located on the outside of the RRM module could be manipulated. It also released safety launch locks. Everything went as nominally as could be expected and even finished slightly ahead of time.
This RRM exercise represents the first time that Dextre was utilized for a technology research and development project on the ISS and represents a major expansion of its capabilities beyond those of routine robotic maintenance of the massive orbiting laboratory.
Check Ken’s RRM feature online at Universe Today:
Astronomy Outreach by Dr. Ken Kremer
Rittenhouse Astronomical Society (RAS) at the Franklin Institute: Philadelphia, PA, June 13, Wed, 7 PM. “Curiosity Mars Landing, DAWN at Asteroid Vesta & GRAIL Lunar Orbiters”
Adirondack Public Observatory – Adirondack State Park: Tupper Lake,NY, July 13 & 14.
“Eight Years of Mars Rovers & Search for Life – Mars & Vesta in 3 D”. http://www.apobservatory.org/pages/etc/events_KenKremer.html
Ken has a selection of his Shuttle photos and Mars mosaics for sale as postcards and frameable prints.