The Cubesat Proximity Operations Demonstration (CPOD) mission will demonstrate rendezvous, proximity operations and docking using two three-unit (3U) cubesats. This mission will validate and characterize several miniature, low-power avionics technologies applicable to future NASA projects. The CPOD project is led by Tyvak Nano-Satellite Systems, LLC of Irvine, California with funding from NASA’s Small Spacecraft Technology Program. The three-year project was initiated in November 2012.
Each of the satellites has dimensions of 10 by 10 by 33 centimeters and has a mass of about 5 kilograms. The satellites also have deployable solar panels.
CPOD will demonstrate the ability of two small spacecraft to remain at determined points relative to each other (called station-keeping) as well as precision circumnavigation and docking using imaging sensors and a multi-thruster cold gas propulsion system. Docking will employ a novel universal docking mechanism. The ability of satellites to operate in close proximity to each other is an important capability to enable on-orbit inspection and servicing of satellites and to allow multiple satellites to operate together in space and even join to form a larger spacecraft or orbiting systems. This capability would also apply to a spacecraft maneuvering near an asteroid or other body on a science or exploration mission. Building these capabilities into very small spacecraft is an especially difficult challenge and advancement in this field will make some complex space missions more affordable.
After launch, the two cubesats will be released simultaneously into a common orbit and undergo checkout to ensure proper operation and maneuvering capability. Each satellite will use its space-to-ground data link to transmit visual images of the other satellite. An inter-satellite link will share GPS and other data between the two spacecraft. Many of the proximity operations test scenarios will be performed autonomously using on-board processors and flight software for guidance, navigation and control. Using on-board navigation systems, one cubesat will perform a series of circumnavigation maneuvers relative to the second cubesat in order to validate and characterize the sensor systems. After completing these maneuvers the two spacecraft will approach and dock using a unique mechanism to join the satellites together. Several docking maneuvers may be attempted during the mission.
The CPOD mission was selected for a flight opportunity as part of the NASA Cubesat Launch Initiative. The two CPOD spacecraft will be launched to low Earth orbit and deployed on a rideshare mission arranged by the Launch Services Program. The satellites are expected to be ready to launch in 2015.
Partners with Tyvak Nano-Satellite Systems on the CPOD project include Applied Defense Solutions Inc. of Columbia, Maryland, 406 Aerospace LLC of Bozeman, Montana, and California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo.