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Robots designed for fusion research could maintain satellites in orbit

Professional Engineering

The robotic technology could help tackle the growing challenge of space debris (Credit: UKAEAofficial YouTube channel)
The robotic technology could help tackle the growing challenge of space debris (Credit: UKAEAofficial YouTube channel)

Advanced remote handling and robotics technology designed for fusion energy research could provide maintenance for in-orbit satellites, according to the partners behind a new project.

The UK Atomic Energy Authority (UKAEA) and the Satellite Applications Catapult partnered to develop and test the technology at UKAEA’s Remote Applications in Challenging Environments (Race) robotics centre in Culham, Oxfordshire.  

A replica section of a typical spacecraft provided by the Catapult was assembled at Race, and maintenance demonstrations were carried out in a ‘highly modular’ robot cell containing two Universal Robotics UR10e robots with 1.3m reach.

A digital twin of the operation demonstrated how operators can take over manual command of the operation if required, and to train the system to carry out new missions.  

“The demonstration adds to evidence that the potential economic spill over of fusion research reaches far beyond the sector itself, and even as far as the servicing of spacecraft in orbit,” an announcement said.

While the robotic automation is not space-qualified, engineers demonstrated how such processes could be replicated in space by understanding technical challenges in implementing remote handling capability.  

“The rewards for recreating the ultimate fusion energy source here on Earth are enormous, with the potential for near limitless power for generations to come. Right now, we’re proving that our technology has lots more immediate benefits in adjacent sectors,” said Dr Indira Nagesh, principal engineer of UKAEA. 

“Identifying technical challenges and solving them for in-orbit servicing and repair is exciting. It will greatly help to improve the longevity of spacecraft and reduce space litter.”  

Jeremy Hadall, robotics development lead at the Catapult, said: “Improving our ability to perform close-proximity operations in orbit with advanced robotics will unlock a range of commercial opportunities in space including debris removal, spacecraft servicing, and even the manufacture of large structures in orbit. This trial moves the space industry one step closer to realising these exciting possibilities.” 

About 6,000 satellites are in orbit around the Earth, but only 40% are operational. Space debris from defunct satellites poses a danger to all spacecraft, which have to perform thousands of avoidance manoeuvres each year to prevent collisions. Servicing and maintenance can extend operational lifetimes, while the same technologies could support active debris removal missions. 

“While the space industry has assembled structures and serviced them in the past, it has been extremely costly and required national agencies to lead. However, there is a significant commercial requirement to remove these barriers using robotics as we expand our reach beyond Earth,” said Hadall.

“The demonstrations have shown how fusion energy technologies can support faster and safer operations.”

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Content published by Professional Engineering does not necessarily represent the views of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers.


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