Nanosatellites to form space building blocks using Kinect sensors

Microsoft's Kinect sensor is one way to give all kinds of amazing capabilities to hardware platforms (like robots) easily and for cheap. Another industry that could benefit from a big injection of "easily" and "for cheap" is commercial spaceflight, and an upcoming test of Kinect-enabled satellites could help make it happen.

What Kinect is good for in space is similar to what Kinect is good for on Earth: it can see objects in 3D. Instead of watching you and your friends make dorky gestures to control games, though, Surrey Satellite Technology Limited (SSTL) wants to use a suite of Kinect sensors on nanosatellites to give them the ability to spot each other in orbit and then perform docking maneuvers.

Generally, docking two spacecraft is a very technical and consequently very expensive maneuver. The SpaceX Dragon capsule, for example, had to be picked up by the robot arm on the ISS and maneuvered into a docking port by hand. And those autonomous cargo carriers rely on complex radar and laser systems. This is all fine when you just need to dock one or two big spacecraft every once in a while, but it's not feasible to rely on either manual oversight or overly sophisticated systems if you've got a whole bunch of satellites you need to deal with at once.

SSTL's idea is to develop swarms of very small satellites that can be launched in giant blobs and then dock with each other in space to form large and sophisticated modular structures. In order for this to make financial sense, the nanosats have to be simple, cheap, and reliable, which is where the Kinect sensors come in: each nanosat will use a Kinect-derived system for spatial awareness in all three dimensions, and they'll use the data from this system to autonomously dock with each other.

SSTL plans to try this out with two cubical nanosatellites measuring 30cm on a side. The nanosats will be launched together, separated in orbit, and then commanded to find each other, align, and perform a docking maneuver. If the test works out, there are lots more possibilities for this technology, ranging from space debris detection and removal to little satellite modules that can attach themselves to bigger satellites to provide backup power, propulsion, additional computers or communications equipment, or even those extra laser canons you've always wanted..

SSTL, via New Scientist

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