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The increase in earth orbit and solar system exploration activities has created an immediate and sustainable requirement for situational awareness, automated rendezvous and docking, relative guidance and automated landing and hazard avoidance solutions that will benefit from using ASC 3D Flash LIDAR (3DFL) cameras. From Low Earth Orbit (LEO) to Medium Earth Orbit (GEO) to Highly Elliptical Orbit (HEO), to interplanetary travel, human space activity, both manned and unmanned, require robust solutions for space operations. If human or natural objects orbiting the earth collide, there is a potential to create highly dangerous debris fields joining the myriad of spent rocket stages, defunct satellites and other nefarious objects posing threats to human space activity and eliminating usable portions space orbit. Using ASC’s 3D Flash LIDAR cameras to automatically and confidently rendezvous and dock with satellites, the International Space Station or to collect space debris and land on various interplanetary entities, ASC’s sensors are uniquely qualified to as the critical “eyes” on such a system.
First generation rendezvous sensors used video guidance and required extensive human intervention and ground control. Data latency and full 3D scene accuracy in these systems is problematic and uncovered the need for a real-time 3D visualization solution capable of providing accurate 3D ranges and scene representation in real-time. While scanning LADAR and stereo video cameras have significant shortcoming and have not proven they can provide a solution to reduce the reliance on human interaction during proximity operations, ASC’s low powered, lightweight 3D cameras are ideal AR&D sensors for manned and unmanned or automated space activity where situational awareness, relative guidance and safe docking are crucial functions.
With NASA’s exploration initiative to return to lunar exploration and eventual human exploration of Mars, there is an increased need for 3D sensors that provide adequate determination of trajectory, landing hazards and identification of safe landing sites during the critical landing sequence. Determining real-time spacecraft trajectory, speed and orientation to the planet surface, as well as evaluating potential hazards at the landing site required for precision landing are all functions 3D Flash LIDAR cameras are uniquely capable of performing, making them ideal as hazard avoidance sensors for Entry, Descent and Landing (EDL). By providing direct, real-time measurements of the altitude of the spacecraft during descent as well as surface relative velocity and orientation, it is possible to simultaneously map the topography of the terrain below to identify landing hazards and provide localization information to be used in real-time or used later for analysis. Sloped ground, craters, rocks and surface composition are among the potential hazards that are identified by ASC’s 3D cameras meeting NASA’s stringent requirements for sensors that increase the success of EDL operations for Mars landed exploration, exploration of moons, asteroids and comet rendezvous and sample return.
ASC’s 3D Flash LIDAR cameras can be modified to meet NASA’s Lunar Mobility requirements for improved surface vehicle operations navigation. ASC’s 3D cameras return range and intensity information for each pixel in real-time, providing over 16,000 range finders on a single sensor array. Because of the high data rates and minimal processing required, ASC cameras are capable of generating large hazard maps faster than alternate technologies. Data shown in the figure1 was stitched together to form a large map of multiple frames in less than a second. By panning the 3DFL camera during a data acquisition sequence, the data can be stitched together to form an accurate 3D ground map such as the one below of the JPL Mars Yard. The figure shows the ground map (upper left) and 3 views of a single 128x128 frame of a single object (the Rover Shed) in the scene. A hazard map of 640x640 pixels could be created in less than 1 seconded by stitching together 25 frames.
Aboard the Space Shuttle Endeavour, ASC demonstrated the DragonEye 3D Flash LIDAR Autonomous Rendezvous and Docking solution, the first 3D Flash LIDAR in space (see Figure2). ASC is working with NASA and various commercial space companies to develop and deploy low cost, hardened AR&D 3D Flash LIDAR sensors for space.