Busek proposes to initiate the development of a semi-autonomous, teleoperated welding robot for joining of external (or internal metallic uninhabited volume at zero pressure) surfaces in space. This welding robot will be an adaptation of a versatile Busek developed system called SOUL (Satellite On Umbilical Line) with a suitable weld head attached to it.
SOUL is a small (<10kg), nanosat-sized space vehicle hosted by and deployed from a larger mother ship (Host Space Vehicle, HSV) as needed to perform a variety of duties. SOUL was originally developed to capture large space debris (and towed by the HSV to a disposal orbit) which now includes servicing. Upon completion of its mission the SOUL is re-stowed inside the HSV in a marsupial-like manner.
Unlike “free flying” robots, the SOUL never runs out of power, communicates securely with its HSV over a fiber optic link embedded in the umbilical without the need for encryption, and in
case of malfunction, does not become another uncontrolled space debris. Thus, SOUL is a low risk system that in case of malfunction, is retracted by the HSV and re-stowed.
Unlike fixed robotic arms attached to large spacecraft, the low mass, low momentum of the SOUL precludes damage inducing accidental collisions that may create additional space debris. The SOUL system was awarded a US patent. When equipped with suitable welding device, SOUL can perform both micrometeoroid damage repair and join metallic surfaces by welding.
In Phase 1, one or two candidate welding technologies will be selected and tested in Busek vacuum chamber. The principal candidates include Laser, Electron Beam, arc-based techniques (TIG and MIG) and spot-welding. Busek has Laser, robotic TIG for 3D printing, and Spot welders in house. The existing SOUL vehicle will then be examined to assess the changes required to carry the selected welder. Finally, the existing SOUL will be tested to determine if its position control is adequate for welding.
In addition to welding applications SOUL has the following broad application set:
The SOUL system and or its elements have a long list of possible commercial applications which in some cases overlap with NASA applications. Examples include: