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Autonomous Rendezvous and Docking

The retrieval of satellites in orbit is a capability that is greatly sought after but difficult to achieve. Such technology could be used to safely guide old broken satellites into the ocean or be used to boost satellites with little fuel into a higher orbit to increase their mission life. At present, the only way to retrieve a satellite is to send a manned shuttle mission at immense cost and extreme risk to the shuttle astronauts. It would be desirable to accomplish this task with robots so there is no risk to people. Communication system time delays and human-machine interaction problems make the use of tele-operation unfeasible for this task, so it appears as though making the operation autonomous would be a practical answer. Unfortunately, it is relatively unknown how an autonomous control system for a satellite retrieval robot would react after capturing a satellite. The affect of various relative sensor packages on the control system performance is also a current research challenge.

The Supplemental Camera And Maneuvering Platform (SCAMP) will be used to simulate autonomous rendezvous, docking, and maneuvering. SCAMP will be programmed to catch and retrieve an object floating in the Space System Laboratory's pool. The vehicle will be equipped with several different control systems as well as several different sensor suites to compare and contrast the relative benefits and costs of each technology. We hope to better understand how the sensing and control systems interact with one another under the extreme conditions of autonomous rendezvous and docking tasks.

Project advisor, Dr. Rob Sanner
Lead Graduate StudentJoseph Gland

The Autonomous Rendezvous and Docking project is under development at the University of Maryland Space Systems Laboratory, part of the Aerospace Engineering Department and the A. James Clark School of Engineering. Funding is provided by a National Defense Science and Engineering Graduate Fellowship.


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