ISS robot handyman practices with mock satellite

Dextre, the Canadian-built robot on the International Space Station, completes the first stages of practicing refueling with a dummy satellite, a job that could help reduce the orbiting junk pile above our planet.

Tim Hornyak
Crave freelancer Tim Hornyak is the author of "Loving the Machine: The Art and Science of Japanese Robots." He has been writing about Japanese culture and technology for a decade. E-mail Tim.
Tim Hornyak
2 min read
Canadian Space Agency

The twin-armed Dextre has managed to retrieve tools and release launch locks on the Robotic Refueling Mission (RRM), an experiment to show that satellites can be refueled by a robot.

Dextre used a wire-cutting tool to sever a wire fastening a mock gas cap to the RRM module, a feat of considerable precision given the fact that Dextre is some 12 feet tall and the wire clearance was only 0.039 inch.

"It's the robotic equivalent of threading a needle while standing on the end of a diving board," the Canadian Space Agency quoted its president, Steve MacLean, as saying. "With 30 years of experience flowing through the iconic Canadarm, Canadarm2, and now Dextre, Canada has honed its skills in space robotics to millimeter precision."

Built by NASA, the mock satellite is about the size of a washing machine. It features various valves, caps, and nozzles that would be found on existing satellites.

The object is for a robot operating in a zero-g environment to be able to refuel satellites already in orbit, even those that were not designed to be gassed up.

Many satellites become junk once they run out of fuel, and nearly 200 decommissioned satellites are orbiting the planet, posing a risk of collisions and even more debris traveling at high speeds.

During the recent three-day exercise, Dextre's movements were guided by ground staff at one CSA center and three NASA centers. The bot also managed to release seven launch locks that secured tool adapters to the module for its flight to the ISS.

The 57-foot-long Canadarm2 later stowed Dextre ahead of further practice in May. CSA officials hailed the maneuvers, calling them the most dextrous use yet of a robot in space.

Dextre's next feat, expected this summer, will be to transfer fuel to the mock satellite.

We'll see how much Dextre will charge for a full tank. I wouldn't be surprised if it's cheaper than prices here on Earth.