A team of researchers in the U.S. are developing a technological concept that will allow robots to repair satellites that have been damaged in low-Earth orbit. The researchers are hoping that the technology will be used by NASA or commercial space companies such as SpaceX and Boeing to carry out maintenance procedures in space.

Since this kind of technology has not yet been made, satellites that have stopped working are left to drift in space, contributing to the hundreds of thousands of space debris floating near Earth. Many of these satellites end up re-entering Earth and burning up in the planet's atmosphere.

CubeSat
A set of NanoRacks CubeSats is photographed by an Expedition 38 crew member after the deployment by the Small Satellite Orbital Deployer (SSOD). The CubeSats program contains a variety of experiments such as Earth observations and advanced electronics testing. NASA

Concept behind Robotic Satellites

Recently, researchers from the University of Cincinnati released a new study that focuses on creating robotic satellites that can repair other satellites. Their paper was published in the journal Robotica. The concept behind this technology was tested by the researchers through a simple task that involved moving a token across a table using strings attached to small robots.

Through the use of artificial intelligence, the researchers were able to equip the robots with learning behavior, which they used to figure out which strings have to be moved first in order to accomplish their task.

Working together in Space

Although moving a token is very different to working in space, the researchers believe that the learning capabilities of robots can be applied in both situations. According to Ou Ma, a professor at the University of Cincinnati and the lead researcher of the study, the learning behavior of robots will enable them to determine the exact and precise movements need to carry out maintenance work in space.

"To grab something in space is really difficult. And grabbing something that's tumbling in space is even more difficult," Ma said. "You have to be very careful to predict the dynamic behavior and perform precise controls so you can 'de-tumble' the satellite and gently grab it."

Future for Robotic Satellites

Ma noted that the study carried out by his team only aims to present the technology needed in order to develop robots that can repair damaged satellites. Although he is not looking to plan out or propose an entire mission for the robots, Ma is hoping that the idea will be picked up by space agencies and even private spaceflight companies for future projects.

"We're not developing an entire mission. We're developing the underlying technology," Ma said. "Once the technology is proven, NASA or a commercial company would take it to the next step."