- The Washington Times - Monday, October 25, 2004

NASA will launch a craft tomorrow afternoon for a computer-controlled rendezvous in space — the first time the agency will attempt such a feat without a pilot at the controls.

The refrigerator-sized Demonstration of Autonomous Rendezvous Technology (Dart) craft is scheduled for an automatic rendezvous with the multiple-task, beyond-line-of-sight communication satellite (Mulbcom), which is already in space.

Dart will be launched from a Pegasus rocket over the ocean off Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. The Pegasus will be fired from a Lockheed jumbo jet at 2:16 p.m. EDT, and Dart will rendezvous with Mulbcom about seven hours later.

“Dart is designed to locate an existing satellite in orbit without human intervention. It will approach the satellite and circumnavigate it vertically and horizontally multiple times to demonstrate the automated rendezvous and proximity operations,” project manager Jim Snoddy said.

The craft “will autonomously go find the existing satellite in orbit and demonstrate automated rendezvous and proximity operations,” he said.

Dart’s computers will use the views from video cameras and a laser range finder to fire its thrusters and gently approach Mulbcom from several directions and maintain various programmed distances from the target.

Dart’s guidance sensor was tested on the 1998 shuttle mission that included Sen. John Glenn, Ohio Democrat.

Thirty maneuvers will be performed, demonstrating techniques for approaching the target satellite from different directions and under different lighting conditions.

The mission, which will bring Dart within 17 feet of Mulbcom, will take about 24 hours. Collision avoidance maneuvers will ensure Dart does not run into the target satellite, a NASA official said.

The Dart project, which costs taxpayers about $95 million, will test only the approach technology; other spacecraft will test the automated docking systems.

NASA is moving swiftly on automated rendezvous capabilities, in part because of the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster. Damage to Columbia during takeoff left the crew with no way to return to Earth safely, even if the damage had been detected.

NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe opposes another shuttle to service the Hubble Space Telescope because of the safety risk.

If a problem occurs while a shuttle is at the International Space Station, the crew can remain in space, using the station as a shelter until repairs can be made or a rescue shuttle is dispatched. This is not an option for Hubble.

In addition, Hubble has no maneuvering ability of its own, so when it has ended its useful life, it could crash into Earth uncontrollably and dangerously. The disposal plan, which requires Dart-tested technology, is for an automated vehicle with a rocket engine to push the craft out of orbit and onto a fixed, safe course into the Pacific Ocean.

NASA also could use the automated rendezvous capability to assemble large spacecraft from separately launched components.

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