Space is basically one vast junkyard. There are more than 6,500 satellites orbiting the Earth, but only about half of them are functional. The rest have either broken down or run out of fuel.

But a team of researchers at Carnegie Mellon University wants to recycle or revive these satellites to restore them to some level of productive use.

If there’s a hard problem — or a nearly impossible one — that can be solved with robotics, the guy to talk to is Howie Choset, professor of robotics, biomedical engineering and electrical and computer engineering at CMU. Choset developed the Snakebot that can wind its way through collapsed rubble to search for survivors after an earthquake — or, famously slither up a startled Jimmy Fallon’s leg on NBC’s “The Tonight Show.”

Howie Choset (left) and Jimmy Fallon. Photo courtesy of “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon.”
Howie Choset (left) and Jimmy Fallon. Photo courtesy of “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon.”

Doing anything in space is tricky, but this problem is particularly daunting.

“Imagine you want to put a USB drive into a computer — while the computer is moving,” explains Choset. “If you push just the wrong way, you’ll push the computer away forever. That’s the challenge we’re addressing.”

The team includes Northrup Grumman along with researchers from CMU’s Robotics Institute and College of Engineering, the University of New Mexico and Texas A&M. The Air Force Research Laboratory and the Air Force Office of Scientific Research recently selected the group for the newly established Space University Research Initiative.

“Our role is how to design and program the robots that will actually install the new navigation system onto the (satellite),” says Choset. “This is an incredible opportunity to work together toward an ambitious goal. No one knows how to refuel spacecraft such as satellites and telescopes. If we’re successful, we will.”

The project development is expected to take five years with a first launch into space five years after that.

“We’ll of course start with simulations. You want to work out as many bugs and kinks as you can,” says Choset. “Northrup has their own test facilities, and then we’ll launch.”

The project is going to require virtually all the tools at Carnegie Mellon’s disposal — expertise in artificial intelligence, robotics, additive manufacturing, astrodynamics, estimation theory and space systems.

It’s yet another validation of Pittsburgh’s growing role in the near-limitless future of the “space economy,” which includes CMU spinoff companies like Astrobotic. Though Choset doesn’t envision any startups coming out of this research project, there are plenty of commercial applications for the science — like upgrading obsolete and defunct weather satellites.

“This ushers in a new era of satellite capabilities and configurations that will transform the future of space operations,” says Choset.

Michael Machosky

Michael Machosky is a writer and journalist with 18 years of experience writing about everything from development news, food and film to art, travel, books and music. He lives in Greenfield with his wife, Shaunna, and 10-year old son.