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NASA just commissioned a spacecraft that can refuel satellites already in orbit

The agency wants to make space probes last a whole lot longer

An artistic rendering of Restore-L

NASA has just commissioned a new type of spacecraft that will be able to refuel satellites while they’re still in orbit around Earth. Dubbed the Restore-L Spacecraft Bus, the vehicle will act like a traveling gas station, by meeting up with probes in orbit and filling up the satellites’ tanks. Such a spacecraft will make it possible for satellites to operate a whole lot longer in space than they were originally supposed to.

NASA won’t be making the entire Restore-L spacecraft on its own, though. That job is going to California-based satellite builder Space Systems Loral (SSL). NASA just awarded the company a $127-million contract to not only make the spacecraft, but supply additional services needed to get the spacecraft into space and then keep it operating. The entire project is being managed by NASA’s Satellite Servicing Projects Division at Goddard Space Flight Center.

Right now, a satellite is launched with a finite amount of fuel on board, so its lifespan in space is dictated by how long that fuel lasts. But if the satellite can get a refill, it can potentially last for many years longer than planned. That’s helpful for NASA and the US government, which invests millions of dollars into its Earth-observing satellites, as well as commercial companies that are looking to increase the amount of revenue they get from each vehicle.

A design unit of the NASA Servicing Arm, which will be used on the Restore-L spacecraft.

In order to extend a satellite’s mission, the Restore-L spacecraft will have the ability to autonomously rendezvous with vehicles that are in lower-Earth orbit. It will also be equipped with two robotic arms that can grab onto these probes and the tools needed to get fuel into a satellite. And of course, it has to be able to deliver the fuel at the right rate, pressure, and temperature. Future versions of the vehicle may have the ability to do even more than just fueling, too, such as perform in-orbit manufacturing and even clean up orbital debris.

But first, NASA just wants to show that Restore-L can work. The agency is giving SSL up to five years to make the spacecraft but is aiming to launch in 2020. For that flight, the spacecraft will demonstrate its fueling capabilities on Landsat-7, an imaging satellite that has been in orbit for nearly two decades now. Once it refuels the probe, Restore-L will also demonstrate that it can relocate the satellite. If that works, then NASA will feel confident enough to start using this type of technology on other agency missions, eventually opening the door for the private space industry to use in-orbit servicing, too.