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Center Innovation Fund: JSC CIF

Autonomous Deep-Space Optical Navigation

Completed Technology Project

Project Introduction

This project will continue to advance the Autonomous Deep-space navigation capability applied to Autonomous Rendezvous and Docking (AR&D) Guidance, Navigation and Control (GNC) system by testing it on hardware, particularly in a flight processor, with a goal of limited testing in the Integrated Power, Avionics and Software (IPAS) with the ARCM (Asteroid Retrieval Crewed Mission) DRO (Distant Retrograde Orbit) Autonomous Rendezvous and Docking scenario.

The technology, which will be harnessed, is called ‘optical flow’ or ‘visual odometry’.  It is being matured in the automotive and SLAM (Simultaneous Localization and Mapping) applications but has yet to be applied to spacecraft navigation.  In light of the tremendous potential of this technique, we believe that NASA needs to design an optical navigation architecture that will use this technique.  It is flexible enough to be applicable to navigating around planetary bodies, such as asteroids.

Every one of the future exploration architectures being considered by NASA have, at their core, the need to rendezvous and dock with other vehicles or bodies.  Future manned vehicles need to be able to do so with both cooperative and uncooperative vehicles and objects.  To this end, the sensors being considered are all optical-based.  In fact, passive sensors, such as IR cameras and visual cameras, are at the heart of any exploration architecture.  There is a need for the onboard systems to be able to use the images provided by these sensors to rendezvous and dock/capture these objects.  Therefore, this project will develop this capability to operate around a variety of objects, without a priori knowledge of their geometry.  In particular, a technology called ‘optical flow’ or ‘visual odometry’ (VO), will be harnessed to develop a robust on-board capability using passive sensors; of course, if active sensors are available, they will be used as well. In fact, we will also apply this technique to navigating around a cratered object (such as an asteroid). This project will enhance the Agency’s ability to operate at distant locations, without the need for ground intervention.

To date, all of the on-board navigation development performed has focused on either Low Earth Orbit (LEO) or Low Lunar Orbit (LLO).  We seek to advance deep-space navigation technology by focusing this Internal Research and Development (IRAD) upon rendezvous and navigation in a weak gravity environment, either at Lagrangian point 2 (L2) or around an asteroid.  Of course, this will apply to any destinations that have a strong gravity field as well.  As well, the technology developed in this Internal Research and Development will apply to rendezvousing with vehicles such as ISS.  We choose to focus our IRAD effort on the navigation algorithms and software for the ARCM DRO Mission, thus broadening our scope, maintaining our cutting-edge capability, and advancing US manned space exploration.  The goal is to be flexible enough to meet the needs of the NASA vision, as it applies to any destination the Agency chooses to embark upon.

 

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