By Ezra Remer
On June 23, 2017 United States Naval Academy Stamps Scholar Edward Hanlon plans to launch his ambitious RSat small satellite into space in conjunction with the NASA ELaNa XIX program, on Rocket Lab’s Electron rocket. His RSat project is part of the AMODS program that Hanlon started during his tenure at the Naval Academy. The satellite is attempting to create a cost-effective option for diagnostics, repair, and maintenance for spacecraft currently in orbit by using space robotic arms. The RSat and AMODS program was made possible due to a scholarship awarded to Hanlon via the Stamps Family Charitable Foundation.
We asked Hanlon a few questions about his innovative project:
Q: When did you come up with the idea of building the RSat project?
A: The science fiction novels of Orson Scott Card, E.E. “Doc” Smith and Peter F. Hamilton paint a spectacular vision of mankind’s destiny among the stars. Stephen Hawking expounds on the need to make these ideas a reality and campaigns tirelessly to promote the spreading of humanity out into space by establishing off-Earth colonies. This need, to “spread out into space,” is something I have recognized – and internalized – for a very long time. For as long as I can remember, it has been my goal to work to improve life on earth and build a future for humanity by researching and solving issues that currently hinder space exploration and human space travel.
In the fall of 2014, the Stamps Charitable Foundation offered me the tremendous opportunity to apply for a merit scholarship. It was the first time I had reason to put one of my ideas on paper and present it as a working and workable project. Having to focus on how I could advance space exploration with a grant from the Foundation forced me to hone the idea for RSat into a realistic and affordable mission.
Q: What led you to come up with this idea?
A: One of the largest – perhaps the largest – hindrance to space exploration is cost. Particularly, repairs in space are a costly proposition, made even more so by the fact that you generally must send an astronaut to perform the necessary work. Many times, sending an astronaut is simply not an option, and a satellite in need of what could be a minor patch-up will simply fall into disuse – a frustrating, not to mention colossally costly outcome. As we embark on missions with longer and longer terms and flight patterns, satellites will be farther from earth. The risks and costs associated with repairs will be exacerbated to the extreme. It is inefficient, to say the least, to contemplate creating a mission for an astronaut to repair a satellite that is three years away. The risks associated with such a plan are deterrent enough alone. Add in cost, limited launch windows and timing, and a repair mission seems almost senseless, even when balanced against the cost of the satellite. The solution: self-repairing satellites.
It’s not an original idea, DARPA and NASA are working on orbital “repair stations” and large scale “repair robots.” But, their price tags are in the hundreds of millions. At the Naval Academy, I had been working building the solar panels for a Cube Satellite. That intensive hands-on experience made me realize that the small satellite platform was hugely undervalued and underutilized, not to mention the fact they are staggeringly cheaper than their conventional satellite cousins. As I was tinkering with the solar panels, I started to think about fitting the smaller platform with robotic arms, and the idea for RSat developed from there.
Q: How did the RSat project grow into AMODS? Was there any specific event that you can point to that led to this growth?
A: It was really the convergence of two ideas: one of which was a practical concern and the other of which related to ongoing work here at the Academy. There are already more than 1000 satellites on-orbit, and many more will be launched in the next few years. RSat is intended to launch with a host satellite, but I started to think about how we could be of service to satellites already on-orbit. At our satellite lab, we were already working on providing the small satellite platform with a propulsive system. I realized that it would be difficult (and expensive) to fit both robotic arms and necessary propulsive and navigation systems onto one Cube Satellite. But, perhaps harkening back to my early affinity for Thomas the Tank Engine (of course Edward was and remains my favorite), I recognized that we could create a shunting system by which one “tug” could move multiple RSat’s wherever they needed to be. And the idea for the Autonomous Mobile On-orbit Diagnostic System was born.
Q: How do you feel that your small satellites will be able to assist future space programs?
A: Using the CubeSat platform to miniaturize and automate the repair process, will make it cheaper to maintain satellites and vehicles in space using a device most satellites are already configured to accept. This will free up attention, and funds, for the important tasks we need satellites and other equipment to perform. Thus, all of space exploration, from asteroid deflection to mining to the colonization of Mars, will benefit.
In addition to pioneering on-orbit repair solutions, AMODS is originating innovative advancements with respect to propulsion, navigation and robotization that will greatly broaden the utility and versatility of the small satellite platform. This research can provide the basis for all manner of new uses and responsibilities for the relatively cheap CubeSat platform.
Q: Where do you see the future of the AMODS/RSat program at in 10 years?
A: AMODS has generated a lot of interest from the industry. Many companies and individuals have approached us with suggestions, ideas and extensions and I see many different avenues for collaboration and expansion. RSat can easily be the foundation for miniature construction robots or asteroid mining scouts. Of course, I will be Commissioning in May 2017 and entering the Submarine Community so I will have to leave it to the next generation of the AMODS team to shepherd AMODS to its next phase.
Q: Where do you see the future of space travel in 100 years? (Especially in regard to satellite programs).
A: Space is only getting more affordable and accessible. I heard about high school and even elementary schools putting together Cube Satellite teams. The effort to make rockets reusable, spearheaded most publicly by Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos, means that launch costs are coming down. This will open the door for more commercial satellites, as well as providing the opportunity for developing nations to join the Space “race.” And this is a great thing. Satellites provide us all sorts of data that will help us grow food more efficiently, predict weather with more accuracy, and transfer information more widely (think of satellite-assisted medical procedures in rural areas). Satellites will certainly be helping us make the most of our Earth and its natural resources.
But we will also be using them as a foothold to the solar system. I can see satellites orbiting the Moon, Mars and even large asteroids that will be tracking and managing mining or even terraforming processes. They will become hubs of activity – waystations for travelers and cargo. And they, hopefully, all have trusty RSats maintaining them in perfect working condition.