Surrey-based researchers are to build Xbox Kinect hardware into twin satellites in an auto-docking experiment.
The microsatellites, to be called STRaND-2, are being developed by University of Surrey and Surrey Satellite Technology (SSTL), with the Kinect providing its 3D laser scanner.
CubeSat is a mechanical standard for miniature satellites. In this case, the spacecraft will be ‘3U’ CubeSats each measuring 10x10x30cm and weighing under 4kg.
“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 or historically, the Mir space station and the Apollo programme,” said SSTL.
They will dock many times, initially with ground intervention, then increasingly automatically.
SSTL’s speciality, through extensive testing, is selecting commercial electronic hardware which can be used in space – STRaND-2’s scanners will come out of actual Kinects.
Inspiration for the flight came from an experiment at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where a tiny helicopter equipped with Kinect hardware was used to scan rooms as it flew through them, allowing a 3D model of the environment to be built, said SSTL project leader Shuan Kenyon.
The University of Surrey and SSTL team has already developed STRaND-1 (Surrey Training, Research and Nanosatellite Demonstrator), and was looking for a further challenge.
STRaND-1, another 3U CubeSat, will famously carry a mobile phone into orbit and send data direct to schools.
STRaND-1 is also one of the most manoeuvrable small satellites ever built, with eight micro-thrusters providing rotation in three axes as well as lateral movement in two dimensions. A separate gas jet provides thrust in the third linear dimension.
If two similar satellites can be made to dock, the team is proposing larger self-assembling structures made of many, perhaps dozens, of CubeSats.
“It may seem far-fetched, but our low cost nanosatellites could dock to build large and sophisticated modular structures such as space telescopes,” said Surrey university project head Dr Chris Bridges. “Unlike today’s big space missions, these could be reconfigured as mission objectives change, and upgraded in orbit with the latest available technologies.”
“I think by STRaND-4, we should be able to build the USS Enterprise,” quipped Kenyon.
Other ideas include using small mobile scanning satellites to inspect larger spacecraft.
‘Kinect’ STRaND-2 at UK Space Agency Conference http://www.uk.amsat.org/6795
STRaND on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/nanosats