Positioning and navigating spacecraft near asteroids
Companies recently established to mine asteroids propose an architecture where a constellation of spacecraft will be used to perform the exploration, mining and processing functions. Some craft will be flying “orbiting” the asteroid, while others will be on the asteroid surface. It is essential that the spacecraft are able to perform those functions, avoid collisions, and are able to dock with each other, e.g. for refuelling. This means that they must have good spatial awareness, in both relative and absolute senses. For spacecraft to know where they are in this scenario requires some fundamentals to be established, such as the origin and axes of the coordinate system to be used. The positioning system architecture may be a 3D ad-hoc network, or it could use a technology such as the Australian Locata system. Asteroids vary greatly in size, and can have non-uniform shapes and “tumbling” behaviour, making gravitational calculations complex. This project encompasses several PhD projects (e.g. coordinate systems for asteroid mining, 3D ad-hoc networks for asteroids, applying Locata on asteroids etc). The team of researchers investigating off-earth mining at ACSER is growing rapidly, and this positioning group will be fundamental to that work. The positioning aspect will benefit from input from UNSW’s decades of experience in the Satellite Navigation and Positioning (SNAP) laboratory, currently co-hosted by ACSER.