British researchers are using Xbox Kinect hardware to construct a novel in-orbit proximity sensor and docking system for microsatellites. Once in orbit, these little satellites will separate to conduct systems checks. Then, when commanded, they will use their on-board Kinect technology to find each other and dock. It’s thought that this could be the start of intelligent "space building blocks" which could be stacked together and reconfigured to build larger modular spacecraft or as snap on devices to help bring redundant satellites out of the sky.
The microsatellites, to be called STRaND-2 (which stands for (Surrey Training, Research and Nanosatellite Demonstrator), are being developed by the University of Surrey and satellite manufacturer Surrey Satellite Technology (SSTL)
There is, as yet, no date set for STRaND-2, which has just started development at SSTL labs, however an earlier project, STRaND-1, is expected to launch at the end of this year. It will incorporate a Google Nexus phone which will map the Earth with its camera, conduct experiments including control of tever before attempted. But since SSTL has no rockets of its own, it needs a lift from an available craft to get into space, so specific launch dates have not been set.
The projects make use of SSTL’s speciality, which is selecting commercial electronic hardware which can be used in space. The company has already had considerable success incorporating laptop components into spacecraft in the past, a cost effective "off the shelf" approach.
Elsewhere there has already been considerable experimentation with Kinnect in different application. One of the most novel was putting the technology into a hobby quadrotar which could fly around a room building up a 3D model of its surroundings.
However, SSTL say their Inspiration 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.
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."
The satellites could also be support for other craft, carrying up spare batteries or upgraded onboard computers or even fly around larger spaceships to inspect for cracks and move to repair them.
"This is all about finding out whether these newer electronics are suitable for use in space. The way we'll know is if we fly them," says SSTL project leader Shuan Kenyon."They may not perform well. There are radiation issues, and there are temperature issues to contend with.”
"There are also power constraints: when your mobile phone runs out of juice, it's easy enough to re-charge it; but in space you're dependent on the solar panels and you cannot be constantly re-charging. The power has to be managed. But that said, the electronics found in consumer devices are incredibly powerful and very, very cheap. If we can show these new chips are useful in space, that's very good for our future technology development."
Currently, in-orbit docking systems are in the exclusive domain of multi-billion dollar spaceships and the International Space Station STRaND 2 will be the first time such tiny ships have linked arms in space. Both STRaND-1 and -2 are smaller than shoeboxes and cost hundreds of thousands of pounds instead of the millions spent on other satellites.