One of the problems with satellites since the beginning of the Space age has been the fact that when they run out of fuel or suffer a fault, they become useless, orbiting space junk. To be sure, dead satellites can be replaced, but the original ones start to break apart, collide with other space junk, and eventually create a hazard to navigation.

NASA has just started a $127 million contract to Space Systems Loral to build the Restore-L satellite and launch it by 2020, according to Space News.

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Restore-L would demonstrate the ability to refuel old satellites, potentially extending their lives, lessening space junk and lowering the cost of maintaining communications, Earth observation and navigation constellations upon which civilization has come to depend on.

Down the road, such space robots will be able to effect repairs and even upgrades to old satellites. They can clean up space junk by placing them on a trajectory to burn up in the Earth’s atmosphere or taking them to a facility in orbit to disassemble and recycle them.

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Rep. Jim Bridenstine, R-Oklahoma envisions a time when such repair and refueling robots would be based in cis-lunar space, getting fuel from lunar water, and then moving to satellites in geosynchronous orbit to keep them fueled and operational. Thus space assets would become self-sustaining with far less reliance on Earth.

Space Systems Loral has long been contemplating starting a satellite servicing business.

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Considering the interest of the incoming Trump administration in public-private partnerships and in returning to the moon, such plans fit neatly into the new approach toward space operations. The fact that President Trump plans to cut NASA’s Earth science account, the ability to extend the lives of old satellites becomes a vital capability.

The first mission of Restore-L will be to dock with Landsat-7, which has been in a polar sun synchronous orbit since 1999 and attempt to refuel it.

Landsat-7 has been conducting Earth observations since shortly after launch despite a failure of its scan line corrector but is scheduled to end its operational life bu 2020 when the Restore-L will be launched. Landsat-8 was launched in 2013, and Landsat-9 was announced for a late 2020 launch.

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