HOUSTON, June 20 -- Big things can come in small packages, and engineers at NASA's Johnson Space Center are making progress on a tiny spacecraft that holds major promise for future exploration.
Work on the volleyball-sized miniature autonomous extravehicular robotic camera (Mini AERCam) moved forward with after initial tests on its docking system. The Mini AERCam is designed to help astronauts and ground crews see outside the spacecraft during a mission. During ground-based testing, the device was able to work with the docking system that serves as an exterior home base for housing and refueling the nanosatellite.
Since early 2000, NASA engineers have been working to create a miniaturized spacecraft that can be deployed from a parent vehicle to inspect the exterior or provide remote-controlled views during space operations. Early development is funded by the Space Shuttle Program Office, which is considering using Mini AERCam to inspect the shuttle's heat shield in space.
The Mini AERCam could be beneficial on-orbit views that cannot be obtained from fixed cameras, cameras on robotic manipulators or cameras carried by space-walking crewmembers. For shuttle or International Space Station missions, Mini AERCam could support external robotic operations by supplying situational awareness views to operators, supplying views of spacewalk operations to flight or ground crews and carrying out independent visual inspections.
Free-flying spacecraft such as Mini AERCam will be particularly critical for external inspections during long-duration missions, as spacewalks will be kept to a minimum and external camera views may be limited.
The Mini AERCam prototype is just 7.5 inches in diameter and weighs only 10 pounds. The tiny free flyer is designed to be operated by on-orbit flight crews or by ground control personnel. Either could command the nanosatellite to fly automatic maneuvers.
Mini AERCam incorporates significant upgrades in a package that is one-fifth the volume of its precursor, the 35-pound, 14-inch AERCam Sprint. It flew as a space shuttle flight experiment on STS-87 in 1997. Upgrades include a full suite of miniaturized avionics, instrumentation, digital imagers, communications, navigation, video, power and propulsion subsystems.
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