NASA is having a robot spacecraft built that will be able to act as a space mechanic, servicing satellites in orbit.
The space agency announced this week that it awarded a contract worth $127 million to Palo Alto, Calif.-based Space Systems/Loral for the robotic spacecraft, dubbed Restore-L.
The project is designed to lead to a greener, more sustainable space program since the satellites could be refueled and their lives greatly extended.
A satellite can work only as long as it has propellant -- and only so much can be stored in its tank at launch time.
On top of that, satellites sometimes run into mechanical problems that greatly shorten their lifespans.
The work on Restore-L could save the government money that would have been spent to send up new satellites to replace the ones that ran out of fuel or ran into mechanical trouble.
For now, the mission is designed to refuel in-orbit satellites, but NASA expects it to one day be used for maintenance and repairs.
The new craft, expected to be launched in 2020, is designed to be equipped with the tools, technologies and techniques needed to service satellites in space.
Restore-L has a primary mission life of one year. It's being designed to rendezvous with, grasp, refuel, and relocate a government-owned satellite while in Earth orbit. All of the repairs and maintenance will be done robotically.
According to NASA, some of the work will be done by remote control, while other work will be done autonomously.
NASA hopes the robotic spacecraft will give the agency the technology and experience to eventually do other robotic work deeper in space.
That kind of work could be useful to service the International Space Station or spacecraft headed to asteroids or Mars.
Space Systems/Loral is expected to build the spacecraft bus, which includes its electrical power system, propulsion and communication systems, and its critical hardware.
The company also is contracted to provide services around the mission, like testing, launch support and operations, once the spacecraft is completed.
Early in 2013, NASA tested the idea of remote-controlled robots servicing in-orbit satellites onboard the space station.
Astronauts working on the station used the orbiter's Canadarm II and Dextre, both robotic arms, to demonstrate satellite-servicing tasks. This accomplished, for the first time, robotically manipulated fluid transfer.