Perched on the outside of the International Space Station is Raven—a technology-filled module that helps NASA develop a relative navigation capability, which is essentially autopilot for spacecraft. Raven has been testing technologies to enable autonomous rendezvous in space, which means the ability to approach things in space without human involvement, even from the ground.
Developed by the Satellite Servicing Projects Division (SSPD), our three-eyed Raven has visible, infrared, and Lidar sensors and uses those “eyes” to image and track visiting spacecraft as they come and go from the space station. Although Raven is all-seeing, it only sees all in black and white. Color images do not offer an advantage in the case of Raven and Restore-L, which also utilize infrared and Lidar sensors.
The data from Raven’s sensors is sent to its processor, which autonomously sends commands that swivel Raven on its gimbal, or pointing system. When Raven turns using this system, it is able to track a vehicle. While these maneuvers take place, NASA operators evaluate the movements and make adjustments to perfect the relative navigation system technologies.
A few days ago, Raven completed its 21st observation of a spacecraft when it captured images of Northrop Grumman’s Cygnus vehicle delivering science investigations and supplies as part of its 11th commercial resupply services mission, including another SSPD payload called the Robotic External Leak Locator.
And just last month, Raven celebrated its two-year anniversary in space, marking the occasion with an observation of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon during the Demo-1 mission.
What is this—a spacecraft for ants??
While this shot of Dragon isn’t terribly impressive because of where the spacecraft docked on station, Raven has captured some truly great images when given the right viewing conditions.
From SpaceX Dragon resupply mission observations…
…to Cygnus supply vehicles.
Raven has observed six unique types of spacecraft.
It has also conducted a few observations not involving spacecraft, including the time it captured Hurricane Irma…
…or the time it captured station’s Dextre arm removing the Robotic Refueling Mission 3 payload, another mission developed by SSPD, from the Dragon spacecraft that delivered it to the orbiting laboratory.
Thus far, Raven has had a great, productive life aboard the station, but its work isn’t done yet! Whether it’s for Restore-L, which will robotically refuel a satellite, or getting humans to the Moon or Mars, the technologies Raven is demonstrating for a relative navigation system will support future NASA missions for decades to come.
Make sure to follow us on Tumblr for your regular dose of space: http://nasa.tumblr.com