Robots developed for fusion find uses in space

06 December 2022

The UK Atomic Energy Authority (UKAEA) and the UK Satellite Applications Catapult have partnered to demonstrate how advanced remote handling and robotics technology developed for fusion energy research can be used to provide maintenance for in-orbit satellites.

A remote is set to work on a replica section of a typical spacecraft (Image: UKAEA)

There are currently about 6000 satellites in orbit around the Earth, but only 40% are operational. This space debris 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 and the same technologies can be used to support active debris removal missions.

Technology has been developed and tested at UKAEA's Remote Applications in Challenging Environments (RACE) robotics centre in Culham, Oxfordshire, where a replica section of a typical spacecraft provided by Satellite Applications Catapult was assembled. UKAEA carries out research and development at RACE in the use of robotics to protect people in challenging environments.

Demonstrations were carried out in the Automated Inspection and Maintenance Test Unit (AIM-TU), a highly modular robot cell for research and development containing two robots​ with 1.3 ​​metre reach​.

A 'digital twin' of the operation using specialist software was also completed to show how operators can take over the manual command of the operation, if required, and train the system to carry out new missions.

UKAEA noted that while the automation is not ​​space-qualified, engineers have demonstrated how such processes can potentially 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." said Indira Nagesh, Principal Engineer of UKAEA. "Right now, we're proving that our technology has lots more immediate benefits in adjacent sectors. 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 Satellite Applications 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.

"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."

Researched and written by World Nuclear News