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TRON – the Testbed for Rendezvous and Optical Navigation – enters the Grid

By Connor Beierle   June 30, 2016

SLAB researchers of Spring Quarter 2016 around TRON, from the left: Prof. Simone D'Amico, Duncan Eddy, Tommaso Guffanti, Matthew Willis, Vince Giralo, Michelle Chernick, Sebastian Grimberg, Adam Koenig, Sumant Sharma, Connor Beierle, Lukas Steindorf, and Ibrahim Makhadmi


SLAB is proud to present the Testbed for Rendezvous and Optical Navigation (TRON) to the spacecraft formation-flying and rendezvous community. As its centerpiece, TRON features a 7-degree-of-freedom (7-DOF) robotic manipulator that can maneuver payloads up to 10 kilograms with 0.03 mm motion repeatability at rates up to 2 meters per second along a ceiling-mounted track of 7 m length. The robotic arm is encapsulated in SLAB’s 25 m^3 space simulation facility, which consists of 10 custom-engineered illumination panels to simulate a wide spectrum of space and planetary landing illumination conditions. All surfaces are painted with a very high radiation absorbing paint to preclude reflections of our Sun and Earth albedo simulators. A space-capable camera is mounted on the end-effector of the robot and is intended to observe a spacecraft or planetary surface. TRON, in conjunction with the far- to mid-range optical stimulator being developed by SLAB’s Ph.D. candidate Connor Beierle, is intended to simulate all optical phases of formation flight, rendezvous, and beyond. This abridgement of operating envelopes is especially innovative in that meticulous attention is being applied to the geometric, radiometric and spectral factors impacting spaceborne optical navigation at all inter-spacecraft separations.

Remote commanding of the robotic arm and illumination panels provides SLAB with the unique ability to simulate complex spacecraft motion, rendezvous, docking, relative navigation, proximity operations and planetary landings. These operational scenarios will be simulated with unprecedented scientific accuracy through the fusion of hardware-in-the-loop with our high-fidelity satellite simulation software S^3. In an effort to extend TRON’s capabilities to realize the aforementioned, SLAB has assembled a taskforce of graduate students, which includes Ph.D. candidates Connor Beierle, Sumant Sharma, Duncan Eddy, visiting researcher Lukas Steindorf and industry partner Ibrahim Makhadmi. These individuals have been working diligently to enable TRON in realizing SLAB’s mission statement of “researching and developing spaceborne guidance, navigation, control, and communication technologies and their rigorous validation through high-fidelity emulators and flight demonstrations.”

SLAB's collaborator Neerav Shah, Associate Head of the Navigation and Mission Design Branch at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, says that "..Future NASA science missions will use distributed spacecraft systems to measure physical phenomena at accuracies orders of magnitude greater than current space telescopes such as the Hubble Space Telescope. The ability to test and demonstrate these novel distributed system architectures in a laboratory on the ground in an integrated fashion is fundamental in proving that such a measurement can be achieved. TRON matures the Guidance, Navigation, and Control hardware and software required to hold the distributed space system together, enabling the novel science measurements of the future. ”

Connor Beierle is a graduate student in Stanford’s Space Rendezvous Lab