Various companies may be working on self-driving cars, but NASA is about to launch technology to the International Space Station that could bring the agency closer to enabling rendezvous with a spacecraft without human intervention.
A test module, dubbed Raven, will help NASA autonomously rendezvous with and dock with satellites traveling through space at more than 16,000 mph.
“Two spacecraft autonomously rendezvousing is crucial for many future NASA missions and Raven is maturing this never-before-attempted technology,” said Ben Reed, a deputy division director with NASA, in a statement.
The module, which is about the size of a microwave oven, will be attached to the outside of the space station where it will use sensors and algorithms to test technologies needed to handle a space rendezvous without the help of humans. The module is expected to work for about two years,
NASA needs to have refueling and maintenance spaceships able to rendezvous and dock with satellites in order to service them. That’s a problem since 99% of all satellites working in space were not designed with this capability, according to NASA.
Because of time delays, it’s difficult to send rendezvous commands from Earth to satellites when they are running out of fuel.
It would be easier and more efficient to send robotic-servicing satellites to refuel other satellites, which can weigh several tons, and perform any needed repairs.
It also means satellites would be able to work far longer rather than becoming space junk, while companies and the government carry the expense of sending up new satellites.
However, NASA notes that this is a tricky job.
Since the satellites largely are not built for rendezvous, robotic-servicing satellites would need to use machine learning and sensors to find, approach, match speed with and grab onto targets.
The Raven module is set to be launched on the 10th SpaceX commercial resupply mission, which is scheduled for Saturday.
The equipment will be aboard SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft, which will ride a Falcon 9 rocket as it lifts off from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
Raven is scheduled to be unpacked from the Dragon spacecraft by the space station’s Dextre robotic arm five days after it reaches the orbiter.
Dextre, a two-armed, Canadian-built robot that works on the outside of the station, will attach the module to a payload platform on the outside of the orbiter.
From its perch outside the space station, Raven will capture and analyze data about approaching and departing spacecraft. It will use sensors and machine-vision algorithms, which would enable a machine to "see," to gauge the distance and speed of the spacecraft it's tracking.
Its processor also will send commands to the Raven’s navigation system so it remains trained on the object it is tracking.
Engineers on the ground will keep track of Raven’s progress and adjust the device to increase its efficiency and accuracy.