Midshipman's Research Leads to Satellite Repair System

Photo courtesy USN

By The Maritime Executive 05-14-2018 09:29:00

As a midshipman at the U.S. Naval Academy, Ensign Edward Hanlon interned with the Sandia National Laboratories, the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center and MIT's Lincoln Laboratory. With several fellow students, he helped develop a novel satellite-fixing robot based on the CubeSat standard. In recognition of this work, the team received the 2016 Secretary of the Navy Innovation Scholar Award.

Now, as a Navy ensign and a student at the Naval Postgraduate School, Hanlon will get to see the project in action. Next month, several of the "Repair CubeSats" designed by Hanlon and his team will go into orbit aboard a Rocket Lab Electron commercial launch vehicle. 

Until now, operators have not had a cost-effective way to reach a satellite when things go wrong. Solar arrays or antennas may not deploy correctly, components fail, and general wear and tear can degrade capabilities. When something breaks down, operators are often left guessing, sorting through telemetry data to figure out why a component didn't work properly. 

"The Autonomous Mobile On-orbit Diagnostic System (AMODS) basically gives satellite operators another opportunity to interact with their spacecraft once it's in orbit," Hanlon said. "Currently, after a spacecraft is launched, it is nearly impossible to physically interact with it again. AMODS can change this."

Even if the satellite can't be fixed, the remote inspection could help identify the fault so that it isn't repeated. "I like to think of AMODS as a $22,000 insurance policy to prevent you from making the same mistake multiple times," Hanlon said.