Celestial Surface Mapping Tech Combines Established Techniques

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KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, Fla., April 30, 2024 — An International Space Station (ISS) National Laboratory-sponsored initiative will test a 3D mapping technology to produce detailed maps of remote environments. The project will use NASA's free-flying robotic Astrobee system on the ISS. Per the initiative, called the Multi-Resolution Scanner (MRS), the technology project brings together Boeing and CSIRO, an Australian government agency for scientific research.

The target device is designed to quickly create 3D maps of various environments with high levels of detail, such as the ISS or a lava tube on Mars. According to CSIRO research group leader Marc Elmouttie, the team is using the Astrobee robots to test MRS by creating 3D maps of the space station's Kibo module. 

“The technology we're using combines multiple sensors, which compensates for weaknesses in any one of them and provides very high-resolution 3D data and more accurate trajectory data to understand how the robot moves around in space,” Elmouttie said.

The robotic exploration device uses a combination of onboard sensors and perception algorithms to simultaneously build detailed maps of the environment while localizing itself within those maps. This capability is called simultaneous localization and mapping (SLAM). MRS relies on photogrammetry software called Stereo-Depth Fusion as well as 3D SLAM technology called Wildcat. The software allows MRS to map, analyze, and navigate its surroundings autonomously.
CSIRO research group leader Marc Elmouttie next to the MRS payload installed in an Astrobee robot. Courtesy of ISS National Laboratory.
CSIRO research group leader Marc Elmouttie next to the MRS payload installed in an Astrobee robot. Courtesy of ISS National Laboratory. 
To validate performance of the software in space, Elmouttie and his team are mapping a known location on the space station —  the Kibo module. This allows the team to check the resulting maps against controls to see how well the technology functions in microgravity. Previous ground-based experiments have shown that the software's mapping and positioning capabilities could enable robots like Astrobee to successfully navigate unsafe, complex, and unstructured environments without GPS or other external positioning information.

If successful, MRS could expand to other modules on the space station, increasing its mapping capabilities. Results from the investigation will help advance the technology to a level of readiness suitable for future space missions and exploration endeavors. In addition to applications in exploration, the technology could be used to inspect damage to spacecraft from micrometeorites and other impacts. On Earth, MRS could also see use, for example, in mining and disaster relief.

Published: April 2024
Photogrammetry is a technique used to obtain accurate three-dimensional measurements of objects and environments through the analysis of photographs or imagery. It involves extracting information about the shape, size, and spatial properties of physical objects or scenes from photographs taken from different viewpoints. The word "photogrammetry" is derived from the Greek words "photos" (light) and "gramma" (drawing or measurement). The process of photogrammetry typically involves the...
machine vision
Machine vision, also known as computer vision or computer sight, refers to the technology that enables machines, typically computers, to interpret and understand visual information from the world, much like the human visual system. It involves the development and application of algorithms and systems that allow machines to acquire, process, analyze, and make decisions based on visual data. Key aspects of machine vision include: Image acquisition: Machine vision systems use various...
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