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Robot gas station planned for final shuttle flight

When NASA retires the space shuttle fleet next month with STS-135, the mission will carry a refueling experiment that could help extend the life of satellites.

Fill 'er up: Gas-bot Dextre will help install NASA's Robotic Refueling Mission experiment gear to the International Space Station. NASA

NASA is set to end the 30-year space shuttle program next month with the final mission of Atlantis, but the craft may help extend the life of satellites orbiting Earth, thanks to a handyman robot.

Atlantis will carry a unique robotic experiment during the 12-day STS-135 mission to the International Space Station.

The Robotic Refueling Mission (RRM) is designed to help figure out what's needed to refuel satellites in space. As NASA describes it, "RRM is expected to reduce risks and lay the foundation for future robotic servicing missions in microgravity."

The experimental platform will attach to the exterior of the ISS, where remote-controlled maintenance robot Dextre will practice gassing up satellites that are not designed to be refueled. To accomplish that, it would have to get past the seals that typically close a satellite's fuel compartment permanently.

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"During the mission, Dextre uses RRM tools to cut and manipulate protective blankets and wires, unscrew caps and access valves, transfer fluid, and leave a new cap in place for future refueling activities," NASA says on its RRM page. The robot would be able to fuel satellites as well as perform minor repairs.

A spacewalking astronaut will transfer the RRM equipment to Dextre's Enhanced Orbital Replacement Unit Temporary Platform (EOTP). It will later be moved to the ISS truss with the help of Canadarm2.

There are many satellites in orbit now that could benefit from a refueling service, according to NASA. If tests with Dextre go well, a mission to refuel an actual satellite could happen as early as May 2013, quoted agency officials as saying.

Atlantis, meanwhile, is slated to launch July 8.