At ICRA in 2012, researchers from JPL presented a paper on a new type of robotic gripper that uses microspines to adhere to rough surfaces in microgravity. To do that, NASA is sending it up on some parabolic test flights, along with several other robotic systems destined for space. Multiple spacecraft surface types will be tested including solar panel, composite panel, anodized aluminum, and Kapton thermal blanket.
The parabolic aircraft environment will allow a full 6 degree of freedom zero-g test, which will provide critical data on the performance of the tool as well as give the team invaluable operational experience that may influence the design, development, and test program for the tool as it advances toward multiple flight opportunities, including opportunities aboard the International Space Station.
With this capability, spacecraft reconfiguration and modularity technical challenges can be addressed, including performing relative sensing and characterization for docking, reconfiguring the system controller to account for the new dynamics of the docked vehicles, and reconfiguring the actuation and sensing subsystems of the new system.
The knowledge gained from ISS test sessions will help inform the Phoenix mission.
The Phoenix mission is DARPA’s plan to test on-orbit robotic satellite servicing and repair “For the purposes of harvesting retired communications satellites.” Yep, harvesting.