It Could Also Save Money
It might resemble the common household appliance, but the Air
Force Research Laboratory's new satellite is no $82 million flying
dishwasher. In fact, it could be the latest technology NASA could
use to save money -- something that's definitely of interest to the
space agency right now.
The XSS-11 program, currently underway at the Albuquerque,
NM facility, is working on development of a satellite capable of
maneuvering around other satellites while in orbit, according to
its inventor scientist and engineer Harold "Vernon" Baker. It could
also fly up to the space shuttle, if necessary, or another orbiting
vehicle to take photographs of problem areas or damage.
"With the shuttle problems, there's a lot of interest in the
technology," said Baker recently to the Albuquerque Tribune.
Future roles for the XSS-11 might also include refueling or
repairing vehicles and facilities in orbit -- roles once believed
to be limited to human capabilities.
The satellite's first mission, launched last April, has gone
extremely well according to Baker. In fact, the original year-long
mission timeframe has been extended to 18 months due to the
satellite's unexpected fuel efficiency.
So far, controllers have tested the satellites systems -- and
its maneuverability -- on US-owned dead or inactive satellites in
low Earth orbit.
While it's conceivable such technology could be used to repair
orbiting vehicles, those satellites would have to be designed to
allow for the possibility, said Lt. Col. Bruce Anderson, based at
Massachusetts Hanscom Research Site.
"Generally, when you attach something to a satellite, you don't
intend for it to ever be removed," said Anderson.
Nevertheless, preliminary results are encouraging, and several
possible uses for future versions are under consideration --
including NASA, commercial, and military applications. The
satellite could also reduce dependence on manned flights, with
future roles being considered for the XSS-11 including a repair
mission to the Hubble Space Telescope.
Perhaps most encouraging, however -- especially to cash-strapped
NASA -- is that so far, the XSS-11 has met all expectations while
remaining on-schedule and on-budget.
"It's a next-generation thing, defining what's possible,"
Anderson told the Tribune, adding the XSS-11 is a "crown jewel" of
the Air Force.