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.
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