Friday night, an Atlas V rocket carrying the Orbital Express satellite servicing demonstrator thundered away from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, soaring to low Earth orbit to begin an intensive, three-month demonstration of automated rendezvous and docking capabilities.
If the mission is successful, NASA engineers say, those capabilities could become a critical element of America’s future space endeavors, providing an alternative to some human-piloted missions in the next decade.
“It was a picture-perfect launch,” says James Lee of the Marshall Space Flight Center. “We’re excited and proud to see Orbital Express reach orbit.”
Orbital Express is actually two satellites: the Autonomous Space Transport Robotic Operations (ASTRO) service vehicle, and the Next-generation serviceable Satellite (NextSat). The pair will circle Earth in tandem, docking and undocking as they practice on-orbit refueling and satellite repair techniques. They’ll also trade and install a functional battery and computer – the first unassisted component exchange in space history.
Key to these maneuvers is a compact state-of-the-art automated guidance system known as AVGS (Advanced Video Guidance Sensor) developed at the Marshall Space Flight Center. Lee is the AVGS project manager, and he’s looking forward to the intense field-test his system is about to receive:
“We hope to demonstrate the critical role that these automated rendezvous and docking capabilities are sure to play in America’s next-generation space infrastructure.”
DARPA, the central research and development organization for the U.S. Department of Defense, manages the Orbital Express Program. The Boeing Company of Huntington Beach, Calif., is DARPA’s prime contractor for Orbital Express. The Marshall Center developed the AVGS technology, delivered the flight software and conducted performance tests for Orbital Express. The AVGS system hardware was built by Orbital Sciences Corp. of Dulles, Va.