NASA, industry partner to launch sensor technology on next space shuttle flight today

HAMPTON, Va., 4 April 2010. NASA engineers and contractors have worked together for the past two years on a technology to ease the process of docking space vehicles to the International Space Station. Developed by the Orion Project Office at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston, the Vision Navigation Sensor (VNS) coupled with a docking camera can advance the capability necessary for automated rendezvous and docking.

Posted by Courtney E. Howard

HAMPTON, Va., 4 April 2010. NASA engineers and contractors have worked together for the past two years on a technology to ease the process of docking space vehicles to the International Space Station. Developed by the Orion Project Office at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston, the Vision Navigation Sensor (VNS) coupled with a docking camera can advance the capability necessary for automated rendezvous and docking. The system, which will be tested on STS-134, scheduled for this July, is a part of the Sensor Test for Orion Relative Navigation Risk Mitigation (STORRM) Development Test Objective.

"The VNS is the most advanced relative navigation sensor that has been developed for spaceflight in support of rendezvous and docking," says Howard Hu, manager of Orion vehicle system performance and analysis at Johnson. "The Orion Project is excited to help NASA advance this technology and looks forward to validating its performance using the space shuttle and the ISS environment."

The first element of that technology--five retro-reflectors designed by NASA Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va.--will launch on space shuttle mission STS-131 today. The retro-reflectors are made from reflective material that reflects light back with a minimum scattering of light. They will serve as the targets for the VNS.

The VNS is an eye-safe flash light detection and ranging, or LiDAR, system that provides an image of the target, in this case the space station--along with range and bearing data to precise accuracies. The docking camera is designed to provide high-resolution, color images.

"The sensor provides two to three times more range capability than any other space LiDAR system today," adds Heather Hinkel, the STORRM principal investigator at Johnson. "Having one sensor that can give high-accuracy navigation information to a crew member, or an automated guidance, navigation, and control system, from three miles away to within seven feet is unprecedented."

On shuttle mission STS-134 planned for July, the new system will be demonstrated during docking, undocking, and re-rendezvous operations. Data will be collected and the crew will be able to monitor the data through a STORRM software application on the shuttle computer. In addition, screen snapshots of the data will be sent to Mission Control at Johnson by slow scan video for the STORRM team to evaluate the data real time.

Under direction of the Orion Project office, teams from NASA Langley, NASA Johnson, and industry partners Lockheed Martin and Ball Aerospace worked together in a short time to develop and test the prototype to support the STORRM Development Test Objective.

Engineers at Langley are responsible for engineering management, design and build of the avionics, DTO computer hardware and reflective elements. They are also responsible for the integration, testing, and certification of these components.

NASA Johnson is responsible for program management, technology evaluation, flight test objectives, operational concepts, contract management and data post-processing. Industry partners Lockheed Martin Space Systems and Ball Aerospace Technology Corp. are responsible for the design, build and testing of the VNS and docking camera.

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