Canada's robot begins 1st satellite refuelling job

The Canadian-built robot handyman aboard the International Space Station is attempting to demonstrate for the first time that a machine can carry out the delicate task of refuelling a satellite in orbit.

The robot — known as Dextre, short for Special Purpose Dexterous Manipulator — has been aboard the space station since 2008 and is what the Canadian Space Agency calls the most sophisticated space robot ever built.

Overnight Monday, the 3.65-metre tall robot, with a mass of 1,560 kilograms, started the first of what's expected to be a five-day mission to demonstrate how a satelitte can be safely refuelled.

A spokesperson for the Canadian Space Agency said Dextre will be transfering 1.7 litres of liquid ethanol that was transported to the ISS by NASA's space shuttle Atlantis during it's final mission in July 2011.

Throughout the process Dextre will be attached to the end of Canadarm2, the robotic arm outside the ISS that helps with assembly and maintenance.

To help it work on the satellite, Dextre will be supporting a 250-kilogram, washing machine-sized, module designed by NASA that's equipped with 28 different tools — including wire cutters and a nozzle tool.

The Canadian agency says the fuel tank on the satellite is protected by a series of seals, nuts and safety caps to prevent any hazardous leaks and Dextre's first job will be to remove a tertiary cap attached to a tether wire.

The space agency describes the set-up as similar to that on an automobile.

In March, Dextre completed a three-day experiment which included a series of tasks and simulations as preparation.

Satellites are not designed to be touched following their launch, so many become space junk once they run out of fuel.

NASA estimates there are approximately 400 satellites in the geosynchronous orbit 35,000 kilometres from Earth.

According to the U.S. space agency's website, Dextre is operated by robotics controllers both at NASA's space centre in Houston, and the Canadian Space Agency's headquarters in Saint-Hubert, Que.

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