Spacecraft Technology Research

The SERC is working on multiple technology areas.  Listed below are the major thrusts and some definitions for each. 


The SERC is working on several different modalities, techniques and areas that focus on the general area of rendezvous and proximity operations or RPO.  RPO is typically associated with the ability or operation of two (or more) independent space objects that purposefully manuever to within close "proximity" of each other, via various rendezvous techniques.  RPO is critical for any "servicing" mission that are coming on line this year, which may include inspection, repair, refuel, upgrade or assembly activities.  RPO is a wide and robust area of research, which includes sensors, orbital dynamics techniques, processing and data fusion, and hardware for contact and dock.  SERC is exploring multiple arenas within this robust field.  Each are listed below.

RPO:  Standards and Guidelines

The SERC is a member of the Consortium for Execution of Rendezvous and Servicing Operations (CONFERS) which is an industry led initiative to leverage best practices from government and industry to research, develop and publish non-binding, consensus driven technical and operations standards for on-orbit servicing (OOS) and RPO.  The SERC is providing input to the technical evaluation and survey of past and present RPO related missions for consideration of past and current practices.

For more information visit the CONFERS web site, 

RPO:  Docking/Capture Mechanisms

The Lab has been working on two different types of "contact" or capture mechanisms:

CLING (Electro Mechanical System).

Created/patented by Dr Berok Khoshnevis from USC, CLING is a genderless traditional mechanical coupling system that can be put on any type of vehicle or platform to make an automatic joint connection. The first picture depicts the working mechanism, the second picture shows two undergraduate students testing an initial prototype on the SERC airbearing testbed.

Electro Adhesion.

Undergraduate and graduate student teams are working a novel mechanism that induces an electro-static charge on its surface that when connected to an object provides a shear force for attachment and connection.  The concept is being worked by SRI and JPL for space applications as well.  SERC is looking at different geometries that maximize shear force contact, methods to measure the connection force over the platen, and novel methods to allow for flexibility in a typically non-flexible electrical platen for rotating objects. Picture 1 shows a typical EA platen sample beginning to attach to a surface, Pictures 2 and 3 show examples of curved and "fingered" geometries for EA platens.


RPO:  Sensors and Data Fusion

Fusion of LIDAR and Optical and Radar

Varying modalities of sensor information at different points in the orbit that account for both light, darkness, glint and even temperature can be fused in realtime into point clouds for on orbit characterization.  This is a challenging and processor intensive activity but could provide unique safety and situational awarness information for future rendezvous vehicles.  A student team explored LIDAR, optical and mini-radar/range information and the challenge of fusing disparate data sets to create 3-dimensional point clouds that represented a prototype satellite.  Picture 1 is the model and picture 2 is the optical point cloud generated.


4pi steredian situational contact sensor system

One attribute useful in an RPO execution is the ability to have constant situational awareness of where the object to rendezvous with is.  Thus a student project at SERC looked at creating a 2pi steredian range based sensor system that could be tested on the SERC airbearing testbed (shown in picture).


Some of the other technologies being worked are listed here.

Multi-Core Processor

The Maestro Flight Experiment (MFE) demonstrates the operation of a modern, many-core radiation hardened processor (the Maestro ITC) in space. The Maestro Flight Experiment (MFE) is an experimental package that will demonstrate on-orbit operation of the Maestro ITC (Initial Test Chip) 49-core radiation hardened processor. This project is in conjunction with the Information Science Institutes (ISI) Computational Sciences and Technology Division.  The experiment itself is hosted by a DARPA Project through the NovaWurks eXCITe platform with launch expected to take place in mid 2018. The MFE executes diagnostics, performs image processing activities, addresses strategies for dealing with thermal and power constraints in orbit, and assesses the sensitivity of the processor to radiation exposure in low earth orbit. The MFE demonstrates a substantial advance in radiation hardened on-orbit computational performance, which is needed to handle the ever-increasing data load of modern imaging sensors and other orbital sensor systems.  The MFE is based on a Pumpkin, Inc, motherboard and PIC24 processor board. Additional boards host the Maestro ITC processor, its off-chip RAM and flash memory resources, DC-to-DC converters, and other circuitry. The boards are contained in a 1U housing that attaches to the primary spacecraft. Internal aluminum panels provide a thermal path between the MFE's major heat sources (e.g., the Maestro ITC processor and the DC-to-DC converters) and the interface to the satellite.