In 1978, NASA scientist Donald J. Kessler theorized that an increasing amount of space pollution would lead to more collisions between objects in orbit, and thus more debris — the Kessler Syndrome. Multiple teams of researchers at USC Information Sciences Institute (ISI), a unit of the Viterbi School of Engineering, are working on solutions.
The U.S. Space Force chose ISI’s & ASTE’s Space Engineering Research Center (SERC) as one of its research partners for Phase 1 of its Orbital Prime program. The goal of the program is to further develop space debris mitigation and remediation technology, as well as the quickly growing in-space servicing, assembly, and manufacturing (ISAM) market. The ISAM market involves the repair, refueling, assembling, and building of spacecrafts and satellites after they are launched.
One such technology is a robotic gripper, REACCH, whose arm was bio-inspired, modeled after an octopus. The flexible design makes it more effective at grabbing objects that are not uniform in shape and size, such as pieces of debris.
REACCH uses unique Gecko dry adhesive gripping tiles that “grab” objects and allow them to be captured. The tiles are similar to an octopus’ arm that places its suckers around objects and then is able to walk or grab them.
ISI is supporting SERC on another type of in-space docking mechanism: CLINGERS (Compliant Low Profile Independent Non-protruding Genderless Electronics Rendezvous System). Like REACCH, CLINGERS is another form of RPO technology, but it combines both a mechanical system that involves hard docking, where units latch together in space along with rendezvous sensors to guide it.
While in space, CLINGERS aims to run experiments while attached to free-flying drones built by NASA: Astrobees. Shobhita Rajashekar, Avionics Engineer at SERC, said that Astrobees are meant to help astronauts on board by “flying around on their own to do some tasks autonomously.” This would allow the astronauts to “get a little more free time in their schedule,” she added.
“The whole point is to begin thinking about how you build really big things in orbit — you need ways to hold pieces in place. It’s not like on the ground at a construction site where you pull up a truck and you drop all the beams,” said David Barnhart, Director of SERC. “In space, if you drop the beams — it’s gone.”
REACCH and CLINGERS can capture debris, yes, but how do they get close enough so that the debris are in reach? This is where SERC supported industry partner Busek Corp. on its SOUL (Spacecraft on Umbilical Line) project.
“SERC is supporting the industry partner on designing a larger satellite that would house the SOUL spacecraft,” said Rahul Rughani, post-doctoral researcher at ISI, described how the SOUL project is connected to REACCH and CLINGERS, and SERC’s role.
“The concept of SOUL is to be deployed on a tether that can then get close to a piece of space debris. However, SOUL needs a device on the end of it to grab and attach to the debris. This is where it is possible that the REACCH device, the CLINGERS device, or even a new device that we haven’t yet tested could be used.”
SOUL, Rughani said, is a “small satellite attached to a bigger satellite,” in an umbilical line manner. Once a piece of debris is successfully captured, the spacecraft would then “bring it to a low enough orbit where the debris would burn up in the atmosphere.”
SOUL is still in the works, but much of the analysis is done, Rughani noted. The next step is getting the funding to actually build it.
For more information, contact Amy Blumenthal at 213-821-1887;