Automated Spacecraft Docking Using a Vision-Based Relative Navigation Sensor
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Automated spacecraft docking is a concept of operations with several important potential applications. One application that has received a great deal of attention recently is that of an automated docking capable unmanned re-supply spacecraft. In addition to being useful for re-supplying orbiting space stations, automated shuttles would also greatly facilitate the manned exploration of nearby space objects, including the Moon, near-Earth asteroids, or Mars. These vehicles would allow for longer duration human missions than otherwise possible and could even accelerate human colonization of other worlds. This thesis develops an optimal docking controller for an automated docking capable spacecraft. An innovative vision-based relative navigation system called VisNav is used to provide real-time relative position and orientation estimates, while a Kalman post-filter generates relative velocity and angular rate estimates from the VisNav output. The controller's performance robustness is evaluated in a closed-loop automated spacecraft docking simulation of a scenario in circular lunar orbit. The simulation uses realistic dynamical models of the two vehicles, both based on the European Automated Transfer Vehicle. A high-fidelity model of the VisNav sensor adds realism to the simulated relative navigation measurements. The docking controller's performance is evaluated in the presence of measurement noise, with the cases of sensor noise only, vehicle mass errors plus sensor noise, errors in vehicle moments of inertia plus sensor noise, initial starting position errors plus sensor noise, and initial relative attitude errors plus sensor noise each being considered. It was found that for the chosen cases and docking scenario, the final controller was robust to both types of mass property modeling errors, as well as both types of initial condition modeling errors, even in the presence of sensor noise. The VisNav system was found to perform satisfactorily in all test cases, with excellent estimate error convergence characteristics for the scenario considered. These results demonstrate preliminary feasibility of the presented docking system, including VisNav, for space-based automated docking applications.
Morris, Jeffery C. (2009). Automated Spacecraft Docking Using a Vision-Based Relative Navigation Sensor. Master's thesis, Texas A&M University. Available electronically from