A document describes a low-impact mating system suitable for both docking (mating of two free-flying spacecraft) and berthing (in which a robot arm in one spacecraft positions an object for mating with either spacecraft). The low-impact mating system is fully androgynous: it mates with a copy of itself, i.e., all spacecraft and other objects to be mated are to be equipped with identical copies of the system. This aspect of the design helps to minimize the number of unique parts and to standardize and facilitate mating operations. The system includes a closed-loop feedback control subsystem that actively accommodates misalignments between mating spacecraft, thereby attenuating spacecraft dynamics and mitigating the need for precise advance positioning of the spacecraft.
The operational characteristics of the mating system can be easily configured in software, during operation, to enable mating of spacecraft having various masses, center-of-gravity offsets, and closing velocities. The system design provides multi-fault tolerance for critical operations: for example, to ensure unmating at a critical time, a redundant unlatching mechanism and two independent pyrotechnic release subsystems are included.
This work was done by James L. Lewis and Brandan Robertson of Johnson Space Center and Monty B. Carroll, Thang Le, and Ray Morales of Lockheed Martin Corp.
This invention is owned by NASA, and a patent application has been filed. Inquiries concerning nonexclusive or exclusive license for its commercial development should be addressed to the Patent Counsel, Johnson Space Center, (281) 483-0837. Refer to MSC-23933-1.