UK space engineers have used Microsoft XBox Kinect technology to develop a satellite docking system.
Scientists at the University of Surrey and Surrey Satellite Technology Limited (SSTL) are developing ‘STRaND-2’, a twin-satellite mission which will incorporate XBox Kinect technology into a new in-orbit docking system.
STRaND-2 is the latest mission in the cutting edge STRaND (Surrey Training, Research and Nanosatellite Demonstrator) programme, following on from the smartphone-powered STRaND-1 satellite that is near completion.
“We were really impressed by what MIT had done flying an autonomous model helicopter that used Kinect and asked ourselves: Why has no-one used this in space?” said SSTL project lead Shaun Kenyon.
“Once you can launch low cost nanosatellites that dock together, the possibilities are endless – like space building blocks.”
Similar in design to STRaND-1, the identical twin satellites will each measure 30cm (3 unit Cubesat) in length, and utilise motion-sensing components from the XBox Kinect games controller to scan the local area and provide the satellites with spatial awareness on all three axes.
Docking systems have never been employed on such small and low cost missions and are usually reserved for big-budget space missions to the International Space Station (ISS), or historically, the Mir space station and the Apollo program.
The STRaND team sees the relatively low cost nanosatellites as intelligent “space building blocks” that could be stacked together and reconfigured to build larger modular spacecraft.
The STRaND-2 twins will be separated after launch and after the initial phase of system checks, the two satellites will be commanded to perform the docking procedure.
When in close proximity, the Kinect-based docking system will provide the satellites with 3D spatial awareness to align and dock.
“It may seem far-fetched, but our low cost nanosatellites could dock to build large and sophisticated modular structures such as space telescopes,” said Dr Chris Bridges, SSC project lead.
“Unlike today’s big space missions, these could be reconfigured as mission objectives change, and upgraded in-orbit with the latest available technologies.”
Other applications include the safe removal of space debris and spacecraft maintenance, with a low cost “snap-on” nanosatellite providing backup power, propulsion or additional on-board computing capability.