I’m Ben Reed, a deputy project manager at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. I oversee the Robotic Refueling Mission on the International Space Station. My team is wrapping up our most exciting round of robotic operations, demonstrating the tools, techniques, and technologies needed to robotically refuel satellites on orbit. Get the scoop on the work being done in less than three minutes: http://bit.ly/ZyM5xT More information about our efforts can be found at: http://bit.ly/pQATuu Verification: http://bit.ly/Wp7OHg Ask me anything. I'll be answering your questions for about an hour, starting at 1pm EST.

EDIT: I love describing my work, I really really do. But duty calls and I must head into the operation control center. We are performing our most delicate task this afternoon/evening. I will be responding to more of the questions throughout the next day or so. Keep the good questions coming!! You can follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Google+. Those links can be found at http://ssco.gsfc.nasa.gov/

EDIT: No time to answer questions right now, but I'd like to announce that, tonight, the Robotic Refueling Mission has successfully demonstrated on-orbit robotic satellite refueling! Get the latest from Twitter (https://twitter.com/NASA_SatServ) and Facebook (www.facebook.com/NASA.Satellite.Servicing).

Comments: 96 • Responses: 22  • Date: 

I_Lase_You17 karma

Hi Ben! Welcome to reddit!
Here's my laser rendition of your refueler: Link
Question time: My son is graduating this year with a degree in astrophysics. What's the best way for him to get hooked up for an interview at NASA? Do you guys have any internships at Goddard? Thanks!

benreed12 karma

Fantastic! We are always look for bright, hard-working folk. By all means, please have him apply here, as Goddard is the world's leading institution for astrophysics, heliophysics, and Earth Science (besides robotics). With 300 successful missions under its belt, Goddard is continuing its rich legacy.

More information on Goddard internships at: http://www.nasa.gov/centers/goddard/education/internships.html.

benreed7 karma

Your artwork has left me speechless - in a good way. Great rendition of RRM! Mind if we share?

BmoreKarl9 karma

I get that outer space is really cool, but what are the "here on Earth" applications of the work you're doing?

benreed16 karma

Robotic satellite servicing technologies could help to extend the lifespan of satellites that provide us with services that we use every day - weather reports, cell phone service, broadband internet, search and rescue at sea, direct broadcast tv, GPS, etc. Through the prolonged use of existing assets, these things may be more reliable and less costly for the end user.

Lolo16z8 karma

1) What are some of the things you at NASA expect to be able to do with robot technology in the near future?

2) What are some of difficulties you faced in preparation for this mission?

3) How did you get this job? Have you always been interested in robotics and space?

4) Because this needs to be included in any AMA, would you rather fight 100 refueling robot sized International Space Stations or one ISS sized refueling robot?

Edit: Some more questions

benreed17 karma

3) I fell into this job after working for 10 years as a materials engineer for the American Dental Association. Not the typical route for my colleagues.

Actually, I never followed space closely until after I took the job with NASA. Since then, it's all I can think about. I am a Hubble Hugger and a workaholic, and love every minute of it. My first twelve years at NASA were as the lead materials engineer for the Hubble Space Telescope Servicing Missions.

benreed14 karma

1) Robots have been used by NASA with nearly every shuttle mission, with the International Space Station, and with rovers on Mars. This rich and diverse use of technology will continue. The intent of the Robotic Refueling Mission is to show that present-day robotic technology could be used to service satellites that were not designed to be repaired or refueled. This is important because all but two (ISS and the Hubble Space Telescope) of the 1,000 satellites in orbit right now were not designed to be serviced. More to come on other questions...

benreed13 karma

4) I would rather fight a single ISS-sized robot because it would move incredibly slowly, being that massive. The inertial properties of translating a mass of that magnitude would restrict it from rapid movement - assuming present-day technology.

And yes, we do debate this often...

benreed10 karma

2) Propellant systems inside satellites are under non-trivial pressure (250 psi). To be able to "crack into" one of these systems, give it more liquid propellant, and reseal it safely - while traveling in the harsh environment of space - led to some unique challenges for the engineers on my team. Many other challenges in other areas, but this is one example of why it's hard to refuel in space.

RRM on space station is doing a set of practice runs, at reduced pressure (50 psi). We're also using specialized tools to snip tiny wires, remove recalcitrant caps, etc. - the steps you'd need to to refuel a triple-sealed satellite. Some detail on these steps are at http://ssco.gsfc.nasa.gov/.

lambstail8 karma

What material is used as the "fuel" in these demos?

benreed10 karma

Liquid ethanol. It was chosen because it has nearly identical viscosity to hydrazine (a common satellite propellent).

For this audience only: it's actually 90% ethanol, 5% methanol, and 5% isopropanol.

Khrevv1 karma

Does liquid ethanol actually have a use in space (or on the ISS), or will it just be disposed of once the demonstration is done?

benreed1 karma

It will just be disposed of. The volume is so small that it would not be worth the effort to try and utilize it.

megamanxero1 karma

I bet the Russians could find a use for it.

benreed1 karma

No comment from me on that. :)

logically1 karma

Where does NASA obtain raw chemicals like EtOH? I understand this may be confidential. A certificate of analysis from a supplier may not mean as much to NASA.

benreed1 karma

We purchase chemicals from standard suppliers. It would be very costly to produce our own, especially for something as ubiquitous as ethanol.

Metabro7 karma

  1. The algorithms, etc. you used for Vision Task, could this tech be used by other satellites to improve imaging in other NASA programs? How? Also, does NASA employ dedicated design persons to handle these images? How can NASA do more to make our solar system more visible to the average American?

  2. What break-throughs or next time we’ll have to do it this way moments did you have in the Gas Fittings Removal stage?

Robotic Refueling Mission

Google Hangout

benreed4 karma

1) The machine vision algorithms we have improved could be useful for rendezvous and proximity operations, especially with a non-cooperative objects. Perhaps extensions of this work may one day benefit asteroid rendezvous.

The team that produces the computer graphic renderings used in animations also provide 3D CAD renderings for engineering development work.

We constantly strive to make our work more accessible to the American Public. It kills me to know that we are doing such important work but that a relatively small percentage of taxpayers are aware.

2) We actually hit our numbers right on the mark with the Gas Fittings Removal tasks. No real eureka moments, only a couple of very small techniques we'd modify during a 'real' mission. This is good as it validates our ground techniques for simulating on-orbit operations.

Go4EVA6 karma

After the refueling demonstration on ISS today, what is next for RRM and your team at NASA Goddard?

benreed4 karma

There are additional tasks that we'll be executing on the RRM module later this year. They include cutting thermal blanket tape, removing small fasteners and electrical termination caps. Subsequently, we are going to launch additional "task boards" which will be mounted to the RRM module so we can practice more tasks on orbit. Ground simulations of space operations are only so good - sometimes you need to practice in orbit.

AKeck6 karma

How is the robot able to all the things it has to when it's servicing a mission? (unscrewing different sized caps, snipping wires, etc.)

benreed5 karma

On a real servicing mission, the robot would be able to perform a wide variety of servicing tasks via a quick-change-out tool drive system. I.e., one tool drive that could pick up a dozen or more tools.

For example, on RRM - on orbit right now - we have four tools that interface with six adapters, all of which are picked up by one robot, the Canadian Space Agency's Dextre.

fattehboi3 karma

How do you feel about SpaceX?

benreed2 karma

I wish them all the luck on earth and near earth orbit. I am a big fan of theirs.

AKeck3 karma

  1. How does the robot 'see' to reach out and grab a satellite to service it? Is there a camera with someone on Earth (or the Space Station watching it?) Does the robot use lasers? (It should be lasers, lasers are cool...)
  2. Do you take the robot servicing arm to the satellites, or would the satellites come to the robot arm?
  3. Is it true that there's a building in Maryland full of nothing but robotic arms? (Pics or it doesn't exist...(grin))

benreed2 karma

2) Think of a future servicer (as none are presently being built) as a mechanic bringing his tool kit to the job site. A dexterous robotic servicing satellite would most likely travel to the clients.

I should note that RRM is a technology development exercise - not an actual servicer. No satellites will be coming to the International Space Station for a fill up. Except for maybe VIPs...http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Lf8Sih4xSKg.

benreed2 karma

The rumors are true: we have a world-class robotics facility that is, indeed, filled with robotic arms. It's our incubator for new satellite-servicing technologies, often referred to as "the coolest building in all of NASA."

For example, we believe that we perform the highest-fidelity, full 6-degree of freedom contact dynamics with modeled satellite inertial properties.

Proof that it does exist: http://ssco.gsfc.nasa.gov/facility.html.

benreed2 karma

1) On the RRM demo, all robotic tasks are teleoperated via our friends at the Johnson Space Center. The "ROBO" operators there "see" through torso-mounted cameras on Dextre and RRM tool cameras (each tool has 2).

In a "real" servicing mission, a system of multiple cameras - and most likely lasers - would autonomously find and track a client satellite prior to grapple. We've been testing some of these technologies in our ground-based development facilities, which can be viewed at: http://ssco.gsfc.nasa.gov/argon.html.

amunnubz2 karma

Would such missions be applicable for Space Telescope servicing? Being one of the best public outreach sources, keeping them operational can be a huge PR boost, which is always good for funding.

benreed3 karma

I couldn't agree more, servicing/upgrading Hubble Space Telescope 5 times was key to its position at the forefront of scientific discoveries.

TheRevenantGuard2 karma

A few questions: 1) Are there plans to further the capabilities of these robots? ie. Make it possible for them to complete a more diverse range of tasks? 2) Were you involved at all in the Curiosity mission? 3) How long before NASA builds Transformer Robots and they have an epic battle to take over the earth while humans are helplessly embroiled in the conflict? You can round this number to the nearest year if you wish. I just need to prepare.

benreed1 karma

1) Yes, we are continually readjusting the capabilities we are developing against the needs within NASA, other government agencies, and the aerospace industry. 2) I was very peripherally involved. Curiosity has a mass spectrometer instrument aboard which was built at GSFC. I helped build it just a little bit as a materials engineer. 3) NASA Transformers are not presently in the FY'13, nor the FY'14 budgets, at least not from my Office. So, at the earliest, I wouldn't wast time preparing till sometime in '15. Good luck!

fluffbomb2 karma

I just want to say thanks. Thanks for being a hero that takes on space. And thanks for working to broaden our understanding of our universe. In fact, thank everyone at NASA for me, would you?

benreed2 karma

It's great to hear we have fans out there. NASA strives to do the right things with precious tax payer resources. I am very proud of what we have accomplished and what is coming next. You ain't seen nothin yet...

LaurentCabaret2 karma

Hello Ben,

Some questions : 1) Do you use computer vision ? 2) Is there a unique type of refueling plug or 100+ ? 3) WHat is the biggest issue in RRM ?

Thanks in advance.

benreed2 karma

1) No computer vision on RRM, just teleoperation from JSC, through TDRS satellites, to ISS.

2) There is a small range of refueling valve geometries on the 1000 satellites in orbit. This is good as it means a future servicer wouldn't have to carry a large range of nozzle tool tips.

3) No big issues so far (knock on wood). We have been quite successful to date! This is quite comforting as it validates our ground simulations of on-orbit operations.