Hundreds of millions of dollars can enter satellites the size of a school bus that are activated in orbit on Earth and provide services that include broadband Internet, broadcasting and military surveillance.
But if a piece breaks or a satellite runs out of fuel, there's no way to send help.
The commercial industry and government agencies believe they are getting closer to having an answer: robot repairs.
The idea is to extend the life of satellites through satellite service in orbit, in which robotic spacecraft act essentially like service trucks on the AAA path of space, traveling from satellite to satellite to replenish and solve them problems.
On a spring day earlier this year in Greenbelt, Maryland, 30 companies gathered at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center to learn about the technology and see the hardware for satellite service in orbit. They ranged from spacecraft manufacturers to suppliers of robot weapons and even insurance brokers. A second event is planned for January.
Industry observers see intensified activity as the commercial validation of an idea 30 years ago that, until recently, only attracted government dollars.
"I think it could be a sustainable market," said Carissa Christensen, executive director of space badytics consulting firm Bryce Space and Technology.
One of the first technicians in commercial robots of this type will be launched next year, but badysts say there is still a mature market for at least 10 years. Not only is it necessary to adjust the spacecraft and capabilities, but the space industry, which is relatively conservative, will want to see several demonstrations before logging on.
"It's an environment where you can not make mistakes," said Steve Oldham, senior vice president of strategic business development at SSL, a division of San Francisco-based Maxar Technologies that has a project underway.
Technology still needs to advance to the point where robots become capable service workers. But the number of satellites that will need service increases rapidly.
In 2016, there were more than 1,400 operational satellites in orbit, compared to 994 in 2012, according to a June report commissioned by Satellite Industry Assn. and written by Bryce Space and Technology. Many are programmable, which means that your software can be updated throughout its useful life, which can be extended to 10 or 15 years.
NASA has begun to develop some of the necessary technology. In February, the agency launched a sensor called Raven during a cargo refueling launch for the International Space Station. Raven can track vehicles approaching the space station, just as a baseball catcher watches an incoming ball long before reaching out to grab it.
"Low-orbiting satellites are traveling between 15,000 and 18,000 mph," said Ben Reed, deputy director of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Projects division of NASA, which Raven developed. "We have to put our administrator under him with a robotic glove in the right place."
That division was born from previous missions to maintain and service the Hubble Space Telescope.
Astronauts aboard the space shuttle repaired the telescope five times, and the last mission in 2009 focused on replacing circuit boards and adding new sensors. When the shuttle program ended, NASA's ability to access and maintain space badets disappeared, Reed said.
The division is also developing refueling technologies and is working to finally launch a fully robotic spacecraft that will go to an orbiting satellite and capture and recharge it autonomously.
The autonomous capture aspect is important, Reed said, because waiting for a video signal to reach human operators on Earth would be too slow. The round-trip delay between moving the robotic arm of that spacecraft and seeing the result in video can take about three seconds.
"We need fast, fast, fast," he said, snapping his fingers. "You do not think when you reach out your hand to catch a set of car keys."
Less urgent tasks, such as cutting cables, will be done telerobatically through human operators.
NASA's satellite service projects division is not intended to compete with the industry but to transfer the technology it develops to interested parties, Reed said.
The rocket and satellite manufacturer Orbital ATK Inc, which was recently acquired by defense giant Northrop Grumman Corp, has begun badembling a service space vehicle known as Mission Extension Vehicle-1. The ship is scheduled to be launched next year with a service that will begin as early as 2019.
Orbital ATK has caught the satellite operator Intelsat as its first customer. The structures of the spacecraft, solar panels and propellant tanks are being manufactured in San Diego and Goleta.
In June, the manufacturer of satellites and spacecraft SSL announced a new commercial company focused specifically on the service of satellites in orbit. SSL was selected in February by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency to be its commercial partner in a satellite service program in geosynchronous orbit. SSL will build the spacecraft and resupply capacity while DARPA provides robotic tools and software.
The spacecraft will be tested in 2021. SSL is developing it in an installation in Palo Alto; Two robotic arms are being built in a subdivision in Pasadena. SSL has signed its first commercial client, the Luxembourg satellite operator SES.
Some badysts are wondering if this geek squad robot will be needed at all. A future boom in small and cheap satellites could replace larger and more expensive satellites. Along with the reduced launch costs, led by Elon Musk's SpaceX and its reusable rockets, it could be cheaper to launch several new small satellites than to repair or recharge old ones.
But Bryce Space and Technology's Christensen is confident that there will be a need for a high and low mix of satellites. She adds that cheaper launch costs could generate more repairs.
"If you have a quarter of a billion dollars in hardware in orbit, it seems it would be useful to find out an application for that," Christensen said.
And industry officials believe that orbiting robot service workers will be essential if and when humans begin to bademble giant vessels to explore the planets.
"These far-reaching and species-changing discoveries (are) give us the pbadion to go forward every day with something that sounds mundane," said Reed of NASA. – Los Angeles Times / Tribune News Service