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Boeing Orbital Express Completes First Autonomous Free Flight And Capture

The Orbital Express program is a DARPA-led effort to validate technologies required to perform on-orbit satellite servicing.
by Staff Writers
St. Louis MO (SPX) May 11, 2007
The Boeing Orbital Express system has completed another industry first by successfully performing a fully autonomous free-flight rendezvous and capture operation. The demonstration of the two-spacecraft system is part of an ongoing Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) mission to validate on-orbit servicing capabilities.

Using its onboard cameras and advanced video guidance system, the Boeing Autonomous Space Transport Robotic Operations (ASTRO) servicing spacecraft separated from the NextSat client spacecraft, backed away to a distance of 10 meters (33 feet), maintained proximity flight with NextSat for a full orbit, and then approached and captured NextSat with its docking mechanism.

The demonstration occurred at full spacecraft autonomy to mark the first on-orbit rendezvous and capture operation performed with no active exchange of relative navigation information or any intervention or control from the ground.

"This successful demonstration is a critical milestone for the Orbital Express program," said Alex Lopez, vice president of Boeing Advanced Network and Space Systems. "On-orbit proximity and rendezvous capability is required to service satellites. Satellite servicing capability can reduce operations costs, increase spacecraft life and enable new space system architectures."

"It was impressive to watch this historic event," said Bob Friend, Boeing Orbital Express program manager and chief systems engineer. "With a single command to start the scenario, ASTRO performed all subsequent operations from de-mate through final capture and mate. I am extremely proud of the entire team on this accomplishment."

During the next major unmated operation (Scenario 3-1), ASTRO will depart NextSat to a range of 30 meters (98 feet), then approach and perform a free flight capture of NextSat using its robotic arm.

The Orbital Express program is a DARPA-led effort to validate technologies required to perform on-orbit satellite servicing. Orbital Express team members include NASA, Ball Aerospace, Northrop Grumman Space Technology, MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates Ltd., the Charles Stark Draper Laboratory Inc., and Starsys Research.

related report
Northrop Grumman Demonstrates On-Orbit Propellant Re-Supply for Orbital Express Program
Redondo Beach CA (SPX) May 11 - Using a payload provided by Northrop Grumman Corporation (NYSE:NOC) and support from a team of the company's mission specialists, the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency's (DARPA) Orbital Express (OE) team has successfully performed multiple on-orbit fluid transfers between two space vehicles.

Orbital Express is a DARPA program with the objective of demonstrating various technologies required for autonomous servicing of orbiting satellites. Northrop Grumman's Space Technology sector is the OE team member responsible for the design, development, production, and operational support of the fluid transfer systems for the servicing spacecraft, named Autonomous Space Transfer and Robotic Orbiter (ASTRO), and the surrogate-client spacecraft, called the Next-Generation Satellite (NextSat). The company also provided the propulsion system needed for six-degree-of-freedom (6-DOF) service vehicle control.

"The ability to refuel a variety of spacecraft on-orbit could represent a revolutionary change in space operations," said Tom Romesser, vice president of technology development for Northrop Grumman's Space Technology sector. "Potential benefits of an autonomous propellant resupply capability include increased payload mass, extended mission life, and greatly enhanced orbital maneuverability."

The Boeing Company, the prime contractor, integrated the ASTRO servicing spacecraft that along with NextSat built by team member Ball Aerospace was launched March 8, 2007 on the Atlas V STP-1 mission, which also deployed four other small spacecraft.

The Northrop Grumman payload onboard ASTRO has demonstrated autonomous transfer of hydrazine propellant, a type of liquid rocket fuel, to and from the NextSat spacecraft. The fluid transfer hardware is configured to refuel two types of client spacecraft propulsion systems. For simpler systems where propellant and its pressurizing gas typically reside in a single storage tank, pressure-fed (ullage recompression) transfers are supported. For more complex pressure-regulated client systems, closed-loop pump transfers are supported where pressurizing gas must be transferred out as propellant is transferred in.

The fluid transfer payload aboard the NextSat spacecraft enables both types of client configurations as well as a commodities supply vehicle to be simulated over multiple on-orbit fluid transfers. The NextSat payload includes the passive portion of a dual-path fluid coupler, while ASTRO hosts the more complex active portion of the fluid coupler along with fluid transfer pumps, a pressure control system, and propellant gauging hardware. Sixteen hydrazine thrusters needed to support 6-DOF operation during separated-spacecraft operations share hardware elements of the ASTRO fluid transfer system.

To date, four mate/de-mate cycles of the fluid coupler and seven refueling scenarios, both pressure-fed and pump-fed, have been accomplished. Client spacecraft fill-fractions up to 95% of tank volume and hydrazine flow rates exceeding 12 pounds per minute have been demonstrated. All six of DARPA's success criteria requirements for fluid transfer have been met, along with six of nine goals. Fluid transfer autonomy has progressed from the lowest level of ATP (approval-to-proceed), where 17 programmed pauses are included in the complete fluid transfer sequence to allow for ground monitoring and potential intervention to mid-level autonomy with just seven ATPs. In upcoming scenarios, the highest autonomy level, with no ATP interrupts, will be demonstrated.

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Robot Teams Handle Hazardous Jobs
Manhattan KS (SPX) May 07, 2007
Searching buildings for weapons of mass destruction and supply routes for improvised bombs are extremely dangerous but important jobs. That's why Scott DeLoach is working to create robots and robot teams to handle these and other tasks. DeLoach, associate professor of computing and information sciences at Kansas State University, has received a $219,140 grant for "Test-bed for Intelligent, Mobile Sensors" from the Department of Defense.







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