Spacecraft Technology Center to assess space sensors for the U.S. Air Force
COLLEGE STATION, Texas — A team of researchers from the Spacecraft Technology Center and the Department of Aerospace Engineering at Texas A&M University has received a competitive contract award from the Air Force Research Laboratory's Space Vehicles Directorate at Kirtland AFB in New Mexico to assess space-based sensors that contribute to space situational awareness. The overall $2.89 million award includes a funded 18-month project, with an option for an additional 18-month effort. The STC, part of the Texas Engineering Experiment Station (TEES), advances spacecraft system technologies from basic research to practical application. Dr. Frederick Best directs the center. The STC team will evaluate the utility of using small space-based optical systems such as Star Trackers to increase a spacecraft's awareness of its surrounding space environment. Star Trackers, which use pictures of the star field to help determine the orientation of a spacecraft, are a class of sensors being considered by the Air Force and other space agencies for dual-use. The Air Force is looking for ways to augment its space surveillance sensor network by using existing spacecraft sensors or inexpensive new concepts in this supporting role. This project follows a 2005 study performed by the STC team for the Air Force that evaluated the Star Tracker dual-use concept for feasibility and produced some preliminary software that could be used by these sensors. The STC also received a subcontract from an industry partner in June 2007 to test this software with an existing Star Tracker camera. The recently awarded Air Force contract will include an assessment of key sensor and orbital parameters that bound the problem, testing of various sensors to determine a baseline, and development of an optimized sensor concept that uses readily available sensor components. Hardware and software appropriate for this concept will be assembled and tested at the STC Sensor Test Lab. The outcome of the project will address performance questions the Air Force has about this dual-use sensor mission and make possible the opportunity to test this type of sensor on orbit. The STC project will be led by Charles (Chip) Hill, STC associate director for Systems Integration, who has a broad industry and government background in aerospace projects. Key contributions will be made by members of the STC staff, including Dr. Thomas Talley and Magdalini Lagoudas. Key faculty participants from the Department of Aerospace Engineering at Texas A&M are Dr. Thomas Pollock and Dr. Daniele Mortari as well as their graduate students. STC's Dr. Igor Carron, aerospace engineering's Dr. Adonios Karpetis and the College of Architecture's Dr. Ergun Akleman will pursue supporting research efforts. The project will also include industry partners. The STC/Texas A&M team will be able to make a significant contribution in determining how spacecraft can be used more autonomously and efficiently, leading to improved safety and security of U.S. space systems.