Near-Earth orbit is packed with satellites, essential to communication and navigation back on Earth. But many of those satellites are aging, so what happens when they break down, or need refueling?

Simply ditching the satellites would be wasteful — it costs many millions of dollars to build and launch a satellite — and then there’s the fact that it’s getting pretty crowded up there.

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The obvious solution is to send astronauts up to make the necessary repairs, thereby extending the lifetime of an ailing satellite, but this is expensive and risky (especially for the astronauts). In the case of more distant satellites, it might not even be feasible. So NASA is funding research on developing remotely operated robotic systems that might be up to the challenge.

Enter the engineers of Johns Hopkins University, who helped pioneer medical robotic surgeries with the invention of the Da Vinci console that enables surgeons to steer surgical robots through complicated surgical procedures. They think a good solution is to adapt that system to remotely manipulate space robots to perform “long distance surgery” satellites.

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Here’s how the Da Vinci system works:

“Pencil-sized robotic surgical instruments allow heart surgeons to perform operations through a centimeter-long hole in the patient’s chest. In a procedure that greatly lessens the need to cut into tissue – thus reducing postoperative pain and recovery time – doctors insert robotic instruments through minute “ports” in the body.

The Da Vinci surgical system is already being used in Europe, although it has yet to earn FDA approval in the United States. But the potential for its use by NASA is obvious.

Last November, Johns Hopkins engineers gave a preview demonstration of the Da Vinci system adapted for satellites at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland. It’s the same console as that used for surgery, as well as a 3D eyepiece for remote operation, and haptic (touch) feedback so the operator can “feel” his or her way around the object.

Later this year, the system will face a tougher challenge when it runs through a complicated satellite repair simulation in which a remote-controlled robot must cut through the plastic tape securing the thermal insulation blanket on a satellite. It’s impossible to make repairs to the refueling port without doing that, and the task requires precise control.

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The need for a remote operator poses other potential problems, namely a substantial signal delay between operator and robot, which makes navigation even more difficult because of the distance from earth to space.

But if the Hopkins engineers meet that challenge, NASA will have a viable solution to the satellite repair conundrum: launching remotely manned robots to perform surgery in space.

Image credits: NASA/Johns Hopkins University