Johns Hopkins engineers, recognized as experts in medical robotics, are helping NASA with a space dilemma: How can the agency fix valuable satellites that are breaking down or running out of fuel? One option — sending a human repair crew into space — is costly, dangerous, and sometimes not even possible for satellites in a distant orbit.
Another idea is sending robots to the rescue and giving them a little long-distance human help. Johns Hopkins scientists say the same technology that allows doctors to steer a machine through delicate abdominal surgery could someday help an operator on Earth fix a faulty fuel line on the far side of the Moon.
Johns Hopkins used a modified da Vinci medical console to manipulate an industrial robot at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, MD, about 30 miles away. The da Vinci console was the same type doctors use to conduct robotic surgery on cancer and cardiac patients. It included a 3D eyepiece that allowed the operator in Baltimore to see and guide the robot at Goddard. It also provided haptic feedback to the operator. The goal was to adapt some robotic operating room strategies to help NASA perform long-distance “surgery” on ailing satellites.
Goddard is the home of NASA’s Satellite Servicing Capabilities Office, which was set up in 2009 for satellite servicing and repair, including missions to the Hubble Space Telescope. NASA provided a research grant to West Virginia University, which in turn picked Johns Hopkins as a partner. One task the team has worked on is the use of a remote-controlled robot to carefully cut the plastic tape that holds a satellite’s thermal insulation blanket in place. The tape must be cut and the blanket pulled back in order to expose the satellite’s refueling port. A long-distance test of this procedure, in which an operator at Johns Hopkins will guide a robot through a tape-cutting procedure in West Virginia, is slated to take place soon.
The task will be much more challenging when the target satellite is in orbit around the Moon, for example. Because of the distance, there will be a significant delay between the time the operator signals the robot to move and the time the instructions are received and carried out. The research team is working on technology to help compensate for this delay.