Orbital Sciences Corporation has announced that its Demonstration of Autonomous Rendezvous (DART) spacecraft has arrived at the company’s integration and processing facilities at Vandenberg Air Force Base (VAFB), California for final testing and pre launch preparations before its launch into orbit. The DART vehicle, which is about six feet long and three feet in diameter and weighs about 800 pounds, will be launched aboard the 36th flight of Orbital’s Pegasus(R) space launch vehicle later this year into a polar orbit approximately 475 miles above the Earth.
The DART vehicle is a technology demonstration platform designed to test the technologies required for a spacecraft to locate and rendezvous with another spacecraft without direct human guidance. While NASA has performed rendezvous and docking missions in the past, such as the Space Shuttle locating and docking with the International Space Station (ISS), astronauts have always piloted the spacecraft. The DART mission will be performed autonomously by onboard computer systems without direct human involvement in the control of the vehicle. The technologies demonstrated by DART represent a critical step forward in establishing an autonomous rendezvous capability for the United States, laying the groundwork for future reusable manned and unmanned launch vehicle operations. Future applications of this technology include cargo delivery, in-orbit space assembly and other on-orbit activities such as satellite retrieval and servicing missions.
Following its launch aboard the Pegasus rocket, DART will perform a series of in-orbit maneuvers to arrive at a point near a target satellite using GPS navigation techniques. Using the vehicle’s main instrument, the Advanced Video Guidance Sensor (AVGS), DART will then approach the target satellite and perform a series of proximity operations including station keeping, docking axis approaches and circumnavigation. Finally, the vehicle will demonstrate a collision avoidance maneuver and then depart the vicinity and transition to its final orbit.