NASA had an ambitious $2 billion plan to refuel satellites in orbit using robotic arms. A decade later, it’s in shambles.

NASA had an ambitious $2 billion plan to refuel satellites in orbit using robotic arms. A decade later, it's in shambles.

NASA has abandoned its long-term endeavor to develop a robotic arm capable of refueling aging satellites in space. This decision comes after nearly a decade of grappling with budgetary constraints, project delays, and technical difficulties. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) made the announcement on Friday, following an independent review that highlighted persistent challenges in terms of technology, finances, and scheduling.

The project, known as On-orbit Servicing, Assembly, and Manufacturing 1 (OSAM-1), aimed to construct a versatile robotic arm capable of extending the operational lifespan of satellites by providing them with fuel replenishment. Initially conceived in 2015, the project’s timeline stretched, leading to a revised launch target of 2026, delayed from the original 2025 projection. The proposed technique involved the use of a robotic arm named the Space Infrastructure Dexterous Robot (SPIDER), depicted in concept videos performing intricate tasks such as opening fuel hatches and unscrewing caps in the weightless environment of space.

OSAM-1’s primary objective was to refuel Landsat 7, a US satellite launched in 1999 that lacked inherent refueling capabilities. Additionally, the SPIDER arm was envisioned to undertake secondary tasks such as antenna setup. However, as the space industry increasingly adopted satellites equipped for refueling from their inception, the necessity for retrofitting existing satellites diminished, rendering OSAM-1 less relevant.

Compounding the project’s challenges was the lack of a committed partner, which NASA cited as a significant hurdle. One of the key contractors involved, Maxar Technologies based in California, faced criticism in an audit report from October 2023. The report highlighted Maxar’s poor performance, resulting in NASA having to provide additional resources to meet project milestones. Delays in spacecraft delivery and technical shortcomings in the SPIDER arm were among the issues raised in the audit.

Originally budgeted at $753 million, the project’s costs escalated to $2.05 billion by 2022, with further increases anticipated. NASA emphasized its commitment to supporting the workforce affected by the project’s cancellation, particularly at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland, where approximately 450 staff and contractors were engaged in OSAM-1. Despite inquiries, NASA and Maxar remained silent regarding the project’s termination outside of regular business hours.