An extraordinary number of satellites fail unexpectedly. For most of these, we don’t know why and there’s no repair depot in space.
But now two Australian companies have latched on to this gap and are developing systems to search, analyse and even repair satellites in space.
Sydney company HEO Robotics has established a foothold in the growing commercial space industry with software and technology designed to extract as much detail from photographs of satellites, even as they flash past at speeds of up to 28,000km/h in low Earth orbit (LEO).
Now it’s offering its orbital inspector – for hire.
In a deal with space transportation service company Impulse Space, HEO announced this week that it will send one of its HOLMES-007 imaging systems into a high-LEO orbit.
The Impulse Space Mira orbital transfer vehicle (essentially a satellite with moderately powerful thrusters) will be able to move and angle a camera to capture objects across a range of different orbits.
These snapshots, like those from various other in-orbit cameras, will then be fed into HEO’s satellite inspection software. This compares the image to everything known about a given object – including its design and construction blueprints, if available – to highlight any anomalies.
It’s also a core technology necessary if a growing push for in-orbit servicing, assembly and manufacturing is to succeed.
Australia’s SmartSat Cooperative Research Centre has announced a $2.3 million investment in developing robotic satellite technologies that will enable a safe and reliable method for maintenance satellites to grapple other satellites.
“Australia needs to start laying the groundwork now to compete in this vital and emerging US$14.3 billion market,” says University of Sydney space engineer Dr Xiaofeng Wu. “This core capability set will enable Australian industry to undertake advanced, autonomous robotic satellite missions to meet commercial, civil and defence needs.”
Achieving this requires significant improvement in AI-based mission automation; sensors for distant and close object inspection; precise navigation and movement, and maintaining stability.
Only then can other robotic systems be employed to conduct repairs.
“This project will address the gaps between autonomous robotic systems and the requirements of real-time, reliable close proximity operations,” a SmartSat statement reads.
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