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NASA probing contest for spacecraft that capture, manipulate small orbiting objects

Feb 17, 20154 mins

NASA says such spacecraft could be used for Mars, asteroid, moon missions

NASA this week began exploring a Centennial Challenge program that would require contestants to build spacecraft capable of catching, capturing, and manipulating small objects in space at high speeds.

The idea is such spacecraft could take part in Mars, moon, asteroid or other missions that require sample gathering.

Centennial Challenges typically dare public and private partnerships to come up with a unique solution to a very tough problem, usually with prize money attached for the winner. 

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The space agency issued a Request For Information to gather the interest-level in such a completion and more fully understand the technology needed for such a spacecraft.

Specifically NASA wants to put on what it calls Space RACE challenge that would go something like this:

  • Competitors would build a vehicle capable of tracking a simulated Orbiting Sample – in this case a small white cylinder with reflective stripes– moving around a flat, circular track at 6 m/s, rendezvousing with it, capturing it, and depositing it in a provided “Earth Return Vehicle” (ERV), all without any off-board systems.
  • They would then face other competitors in head-to-head matches that consist of two rounds each. In each round, competitors would first obtain a stable “parking orbit” at a “high altitude” towards the outside of the track, 180 degrees apart from the other competitor.
  • A circular reference line taped to the track at this radius, as well as an angular reference would be provided to assist competitors in reaching this starting state.
  • Once both competitors are in their parking orbit, a robotic vehicle (referred to as the “Orbiting Sample Bot”) would be “launched” from the inside of the track into a parking orbit lane at a lower altitude (smaller radius as compared to the competitor’s orbit) carrying two Orbiting Sample’s mounted on front and rear booms, one for each competitor.
  • The Orbiting Sample Bot would insert itself into orbit exactly halfway between each competitor and at a constant speed (4 m/s in the first level of the competition, 6 m/s in the second level).
  • Competitors’ vehicles would then race to rendezvous, capture, and store their Orbiting Sample in their ERVs, with a small caveat: after the Orbiting Sample is launched, vehicles must remain in a specified speed band of +/- 0.5 m/s of the Bot’s speed. This would force competitors to change radii to either catch up with or slow down to the Bot, simulating orbital mechanics.
  • Competitor’s speed, acceleration, and power consumption would be monitored by a provided regulation package, most likely based on ranging radio technology and IMUs, and the ERV would be a container with an Orbiting Sample shaped depression in it requiring control of position and orientation for successful storage of the sample.
  • The first competitor to accomplish all the above tasks successively would win that round. The second round would be the same as the first, except that the competitors would switch starting positions (fore and aft of the Bot).

“On-orbit sample capture, a special application of Autonomous Rendezvous and Docking, poses several difficult challenges. These include close-range on-orbit detection, rendezvous, and capture of a very small, passive space object (

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“Development of a standard on-orbit sample capture/return spacecraft bus would not only enable NASA missions such as Mars Sample Return and lunar sample return, but also minimize the cost of and the risks to future missions. The architecture of the Space RACE competition would spark meaningful technical advancements in dynamic tracking, capture, and precision manipulation of small objects, challenges common to both space and terrestrial applications (such as automated packaging and fruit picking),” NASA said.

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