The Jet Propulsion Laboratory is currently conducting a study that examines the use of "mini-refueler" spacecraft that could service satellites in space. The study is sponsored by the United States Air Force and NASA and is being conducted using NASA's Space Infrared Telescope Facility (SIRTF), the Air Force Space Based Radar (SBR) and other potential servicing targets.
The mini-refueler concept is similar to the idea behind aircraft refueling. Satellites could be launched with a minimum of fuel and have their partially filled tanks refueled after being placed in orbit. This would allow satellites to either lower their launch costs due to reduced weight, or increase their payload, batteries, solar panels, etc.
The refueler would utilize existing technology and operate autonomously with ground supervisory control. After rendezvousing and docking with a satellite, the refueler would transfer its fuel and then be discarded.
The scientific lifetime of satellites could be extended using the mini-refueler concept. Previous scientific satellites, such as the 1983 Infrared AstronomySatellite (IRAS), were still producing valuable scientific data when their planned operational life ended due to the depletion of the cryogens used to cool the sensors. In the future, similar limitations could be overcome by using the mini-refueler.
The autonomous, expendable satellite refueling study at JPL is sponsored by the U.S. Air Force Space Systems Division and the NASA Office of Space Flight. For more information please contact Wayne Schober, (818) 354-8582.
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