SSTL Exec: Use of Game Console Technology “Game Changer”

[Satellite TODAY Insider 05-30-12] Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd (SSTL) believes technology being used in XBOX games consoles can be used in in-orbit satellite docking systems, the company announced May 28. Along with the University of Surrey, it is developing STRaND-2 — a twin-satellite mission to test a novel in-orbit docking system based upon XBOX Kinect technology that it says could change the way space assets are built, maintained and decommissioned.
            STRaND-2 is the latest mission in the STRaND (Surrey Training, Research and Nanosatellite Demonstrator) program, following on from the smartphone-powered STRaND-1 satellite that is near completion. Similar in design to STRaND-1, the identical twin satellites will each measure 30cm (3 unit Cubesat) in length, and utilize components from the XBOX Kinect games controller to scan the local area and provide the satellites with spatial awareness on all three axes.
            University of Surrey Space Center Project Lead Christopher Bridges told Satellite Today Insider how the idea to use game console technology came about. “The idea originated from our first satellite, STRaND-1, which is experimenting with using smartphone technologies in space as well as an advanced attitude and orbit control system. The next logical step for us was to decide which other technologies we could exploit! Given that our current research topics at the University include satellite inspection and rendezvous and docking, we chose the Kinect. Inspection using the Kinect is targeted to assess damage and develop close proximity operations, especially at GEO,” he said.
            However, a technology project like this does not come without a series of challenges. “One of the key problems we have identified is that if there is often not enough light to see the object, then you risk collision — creating potentially more debris. The U.K. Space Agency has part-funded an initial feasibility analysis, but not the whole mission,” Bridges said. “It will investigate the use of the Kinect sensor to operate in no light conditions using infrared (IR) sensing. The key challenges are that in space, there is also a lot of IR from our Sun. This and extending the optical range of the Kinect will also be important.”
            With the success of this research, the use of this technology could be extended into other areas. “Together with SSTL, who are developing the thruster technologies in parallel, the research is in the initial Phase A studies but we’re looking to find further applications from the integration of Kinect-style sensors with autonomous embedded computers. Autonomous vehicles such as UAVs and automated augmented reality could be fields to explore too,” Bridges added.

            Bridges believes this technology could even be classed as a game changer in the satellite industry. He said, “Yes, absolutely (it is a game changer). Being able to visually assess assets in space and maneuver around them can only lead to further exploration opportunities; not just satellites but asteroids too.”

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