KENNEDY SPACE CENTER (FL), May 31, 2023 – Similar to the droids we see in movies, astronauts on the International Space Station (ISS) use their own free-flying robotic helpers called Astrobees. Queen, Honey, and Bumble are a trio of cube-shaped robots buzzing around station. They assist crew members with a multitude of tasks, including helping to perform ISS National Laboratory-sponsored investigations to test new technology that could aid in future spaceflight endeavors.
One such technology demonstration project is launching on SpaceX’s upcoming 28th Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) mission. A team of engineering students from the University of Southern California—led by David Barnhart, a professor of astronautics and the director of USC’s Space Engineering Research Center—is using the Astrobee robots to test a new autonomous spacecraft docking system called CLINGERS. This will be the first investigation to use the space station to test a docking system that uses integrated sensing.
The team’s project will test an adaptor for docking and close approach sensing as a means of connecting both active and passive objects in space. This type of technology is essential for applications such as satellite servicing, orbital refueling, and in-orbit manufacturing processes.
“My passion is working on anything related to rendezvous and close proximity operations,” Barnhart said. “Getting up close and personal with objects in space is challenging and highly useful as long as you don’t create debris, and CLINGERS will help with that.”
According to Barnhart, the CLINGERS technology could make it easier to safely move objects in space, which is key to developing an in-orbit construction ecosystem. “The Astrobee free flyers will be used to simulate docking procedures, enabling us to test out our system’s sensing abilities and connection mechanism,” he said. “Docking and undocking reconfiguration capabilities for modular spacecraft will be critical to the future of space travel, and this aims to be the first integrated sensing docking system of its kind.”
To put the CLINGERS system through its paces, crew members on the space station will affix CLINGERS sensors to two of the station’s resident Astrobee robots. The crew will then observe and test multiple scenarios, during which the Astrobee robots will attempt to dock themselves using the CLINGERS system.
“We’re going to do a bunch of tests—some with both Astrobees active, some with one ‘dead’ and the other one active, some with both half active, and some where they’re turned in different directions,” Barnhart said. “We’re just going to explore a variety of scenarios.”
Barnhart said that variables like distance will change throughout the tests, as well as the robots’ orientation. The tests will be live streamed, allowing Barnhart, his students, and others at USC to watch in real time.
SpaceX CRS-28 is targeted for launch no earlier than June 3 at 12:35 p.m. EDT. This mission will include multiple ISS National Lab-sponsored payloads. To learn more about all ISS National Lab-sponsored research on this mission, please visit our launch page.
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About the International Space Station (ISS) National Laboratory: The International Space Station (ISS) is a one-of-a-kind laboratory that enables research and technology development not possible on Earth. As a public service enterprise, the ISS National Lab allows researchers to leverage this multiuser facility to improve life on Earth, mature space-based business models, advance science literacy in the future workforce, and expand a sustainable and scalable market in low Earth orbit. Through this orbiting national laboratory, research resources on the space station are available to support non-NASA science, technology and education initiatives from U.S. government agencies, academic institutions, and the private sector. The Center for the Advancement of Science in Space, Inc. (CASIS) manages the ISS National Lab, under Cooperative Agreement with NASA, facilitating access to its permanent microgravity research environment, a powerful vantage point in low Earth orbit, and the extreme and varied conditions of space. To learn more about the ISS National Lab, visit www.ISSNationalLab.org.
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