ISS Robotic Refueling Mission Problematic for MDA

As the space shuttle program came to an end the final mission of Atlantis to the International Space Station (ISS) delivered the Robotic Refueling Mission (RRM) platform which in November will be used to demonstrate and test tools, technologies, and techniques needed to robotically refuel satellites in space. And while the project is a joint effort between NASA and the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) the primary benefits of the experiment are to foster the development of a commercial solution by American companies which is in effect direct competition to Canada’s MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates Ltd. (MDA) Satellite Infrastructure Servicing (SIS) initiative. The question then is, why is Canada even involved?


Canada will use Dextre, the twin-armed robot on the International Space Station to perform the experiment using NASA’s tools developed by the Goddard Space Flight Center.
Earlier this month at a NASA news conference on the RRM held at the Kennedy Space Center two days before the launch of Atlantis, the CSA’s Mathieu Caron, a Mission Operations Manager, discussed the CSA’s role in the experiment.
This will be the first time for Dextre, that Dextre will be involved in such a research and development project as opposed to the routine maintenance and logistics on board the International Space Station.
We’re quite looking forward to see how Dextre will perform with those new tools because if you look at the tasks involved which are, removing caps, cutting through the exterior of a simulated exterior of a satellite, or connecting a hose to a fuel valve, those are all tasks which will present unprecedented demands on Dextre’s sense of touch and fine motion, so we’re quite looking forward to executing those tasks and seeing basically how we can work together and share expertise as we tackle those, these new operations.
The Robotic Refueling Mission is really falls well in line with Canada’s own efforts in order to advance the field of space robotics and falls in line also with our development of our Next Generation Canadarm project.
So for the CSA there definitely is an up side to this experiment. However it appears the CSA is walking a fine line between testing Dextre and gathering new data on its capabilities and the benefits NASA hopes to come from the experiment.
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Artist concept of the Robotic Refueling platform attached to the ISS Express Logistics Carrier with Dextre robot on the right performing a task. (Image courtesy NASA)
SpaceRef contacted the CSA and asked if the results of the experiment will be made available to industry. Andrew Keenan an engineer at the CSA said “Certain results will be made public (through NASA TV, etc) such as successful completion of the various tasks on RRM and downlink video of the operations. Canadian industry, in particular MDA, will be involved with the preparation and execution of each task and so will be very aware of the details of the tasks, the level of effort associated with completing each one, and the robotic and RRM tool performance. Elements of the detailed results of the robotics performance will made public at different space and robotics related conferences and to ISS partners and their industrial contractors at multiple bilateral forums.
Frank Cepollina, the project manager from NASA’s Satellite Servicing Capabilities Office said at the news conference “Were going to make this data available to everybody, that is all commercial industry that may want to leap off and start their own ventures, make that technology available, allow them them to understand what the risks are, what the problems are, and to in effect try to consolidate or try to reduce the risks of in-orbit repair and refuelling and maintenance.
When SpaceRef contacted NASA about the sharing of data and tools with Canadian businesses, Dewayne Washington, a NASA spokesman from the Goddard Space Flight Center said “The Canadian Space Agency is our partner on RRM and we will exchange our performance results with them. Export control regulations prohibit sharing of the details behind the technologies. The respective intellectual property will stay protected in both Canada and the US. We are not asking CSA for details of Dextre Control Algorithms nor is CSA asking us for design details on our smart tools.
In other words, no, unless you’re an American company the primary data and tools won’t be made available.
Successive governments have long touted the development of Canadian robotics. The recent stimulus funds from the Harper government served to further Canada’s expertise in robotics. The company that leads that expertise is MDA though many other contribute as well. The government even went as far as blocking the sale of MDA’s space division in 2008 to an American company, ATK, to protect Canada’s interest in the space sector. Since then MDA’s space division has proven to be its best earning division. MDA is currently flush with cash after selling its property-information division.
Using the robotic expertise MDA has acquired over the years they saw an opportunity for on-orbit servicing of satellites. That idea became the Satellite Infrastructure Servicing (SIS) initiative and earlier this year MDA signed Intelsat as its anchor tenant.
The idea of on-orbit servicing has been around for over 30 years and in the 80’s was a hot topic. But until the last few years the idea was dormant. However with the increased reliance by governments and commercial businesses on satellites, especially those in Geostationary orbits, the need to service satellites has become an important issue. In 2010 NASA held an the International Workshop on On-Orbit Satellite Servicing workshop. The report (PDF) released from that workshop stated that there is indeed a need for on-orbit servicing now. With that in mind plans were put forward by NASA for the Robotic Refueling Mission. Aside from the technical goals of the experiment NASA is hoping that US companies will see that there is indeed a market for this service now and move forward with developing a commercial solution. NASA has stated they don’t plan on developing the solution themselves.
Just last month MDA decided to extend the definition phase of its SIS initiative by three months. The reason was to see what NASA might do. As part of its business plan MDA is hoping to sign on U.S. government customers. However if a U.S. commercial entity goes forward with developing its own on-orbit solution and has the backing and is given data and technology from NASA it could be much harder for a foreign company to compete for U.S. government contracts and could put the MDA SIS initiative in jeopardy. However having Intelsat, a major commercial satellite owner on board and showing faith in MDA’s plan will certainly weigh in favour of it moving forward. MDA will release its second quarter results on July 29th and host an earnings call.

About Marc Boucher

Marc Boucher
Boucher is an entrepreneur, writer, editor & publisher. He is the founder of SpaceRef Canada Interactive Inc, CEO and co-founder of SpaceRef U.S., advisor and co-founder of the Canadian Space Commerce Association, and director and co-founder of MaxQ Accelerator Inc. Previously he was the founder of Maple Square, Canada's first internet directory and search engine which he sold.