Narrator: So Ben, start by telling us what exactly is the Robotic Refueling Mission?
Ben Reed: The Robotic Refueling Mission is a technology demonstration mission. It was launched on the last shuttle to the International Space Station; you see it there flying over Earth. It's about the size of a washing machine the white box on the right side there. And what it contains is both robotics tools and satellite interfaces. And what that means is; we intend to demonstrate on this technology demonstration mission that we have the ability to robotically refuel the satellite. Now that doesn't sound pretty tough to do on the ground. We fill our cars with fuel everyday but nobody has ever robotically refueled a satellite in space that wasn't designed to be refueled. There are roughly 1,000 satellites in space and not one of them other then the Space Station, just that one, but the other 999 are not designed to be refueled in space. So we are trying to show the world that the technology exists today to robotically refuel that gigantic set of potential clients as it were.
Narrator: So tell us why is this technology so important?
Ben Reed: It's important because satellites are incredibly expensive. A typical communication satellite in geosynchronous orbit is something around 200-250 million dollars. Government satellites can run even higher than that. So to replace one of these satellites when they run out of fuel is quite an expensive endeavor. So the ability to refuel one of these very expensive assets would give a fleet owner or operator flexibility. That if they chose not to replace the satellite but they wanted to continue using the one in space for a few more years, they would have options. They would be able to refuel that satellite and delay that expenditure of the additional money to replace that satellite.
Narrator: So what makes fueling in space so difficult?
Ben Reed: Refueling in space is difficult because it was never designed to happen. When a satellite is fueled on the launch pad before launch, it's fill and drain valve is triple sealed. There you see a cap with the robot moving on top of it. That's just 1 of 3 seals. And now you see a second cap and so each one of these is a different size, it's a different shape. And so wire has to be cut, caps have to be removed. And once all that's done, you have an exposed valve like you see there in the image on your screen. When that actuation out there, you just saw there is rotated the fuel system becomes open. The trouble is the pressure inside that is 250 psi. And the fuel inside the satellite would come spraying out, so robotic refueling has to undo all those seals, thread on to that fill and drain valve, and then overcome that pressure to get more fuel into the satellite, quite challenging.
Narrator: How will this technology help shape future plans for space exploration?
Ben Reed: So humans have done fantastic work in space to date. All the work on the International Space Station, the work to service Hubble, everything we did in the Apollo program to go to the moon, is just incredible. But we haven't ventured very far into space. We've basically stayed in our own neighborhood. Well the images you just saw on the screen was of Mars. That is an ultimate goal, an ultimate destination for our species. So, to go that far away from Earth one would want to have the ability to fix one's own spacecraft if there were failures to perhaps build a larger craft to get there more rapidly. And so all this Dextre's manipulation of spacecraft deep into space is going to require robotics, its going to require robots and humans working together in ways they haven't in the past. And so we are helping to develop some of that technology now, on the International Space Station that will allow for these more ambitious missions deeper into space.
Narrator: So what kind of satellites are you talking about that would be possible candidates for refueling mission? Are we looking at weather satellites and you know why would important to refuel them? As opposed to build new ones?
Ben Reed: There are many different types of satellites in orbit today. Of the roughly 1,000 satellites in orbit, there are commercial, there are government satellites, which perform all sorts of functions. Phone conversations, broad band internet to remote locations, weather, search and rescue, tracking of ships in the ocean. All these require satellites, very vital to our nations safety, to our nations economy, to the world's safety and economy. Problems happen in space, space is a very harsh environment some of these satellites suffer anomalies, suffer unexpected failures. So the ability to go and to do something about it rather than just build a new one at quite an expense. Satellite servicing brings options that you could perhaps fix a failure, give satellite more fuel. It gives the owner of that satellite the ability to do something else other than simply replacing it, which takes a lot of time, at least three or four years.