NASA has just commissioned a new type of spacecraft that will be able to refuel satellites while they’re still in orbit around Earth. Dubbed the Restore-L Spacecraft Bus, the vehicle will act like a traveling gas station, by meeting up with probes in orbit and filling up the satellites’ tanks. Such a spacecraft will make it possible for satellites to operate a whole lot longer in space than they were originally supposed to.
NASA won’t be making the entire Restore-L spacecraft on its own, though. That job is going to California-based satellite builder Space Systems Loral (SSL). NASA just awarded the company a $127-million contract to not only make the spacecraft, but supply additional services needed to get the spacecraft into space and then keep it operating. The entire project is being managed by NASA’s Satellite Servicing Projects Division at Goddard Space Flight Center.
Right now, a satellite is launched with a finite amount of fuel on board, so its lifespan in space is dictated by how long that fuel lasts. But if the satellite can get a refill, it can potentially last for many years longer than planned. That’s helpful for NASA and the US government, which invests millions of dollars into its Earth-observing satellites, as well as commercial companies that are looking to increase the amount of revenue they get from each vehicle.