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Aerospace engineering senior, Alex Reynolds, received first place and a $1000 prize for his student paper at the 42nd Annual American Astronautical Society Guidance & Control Conference earlier this year. His paper was titled “Design and Verification of a Stereoscopic Imager for Use in Spacecraft Close Proximity Operations.” Alex competed with papers authored by students from the University of Colorado at Boulder, the University of Arizona, and Utah State University. His paper focused on research that he conducted as part of the Missouri S&T Satellite Research Team (M-SAT). The research and the team’s mission focuses on developing new technologies for microsatellites. This research included the design and testing of the stereoscopic imaging algorithm that “MR SAT” (the “chase” satellite) will use in space to track “MRS SAT” (the “leader” satellite). Specifically, it addresses how MR SAT processes images to find MRS SAT in space so MR SAT can navigate around MRS SAT.
As the space environment becomes more crowded, having spacecraft that can detect and maneuver around other objects in space for the purposes of inspection and rendezvous will be very helpful. The problem is that, for smaller satellites, many of the methods for detecting other objects (like radar and lidar) are too large and use an excessive amount of power for use onboard a microsatellite. As a method for enabling such “proximity operations” by a small satellite, stereoscopic imaging is ideal because of the low volume and power requirements. Stereoscopic imaging is used when two cameras onboard the chase spacecraft are separated by some baseline distance, then capture simultaneous images of the target object to determine its relative position. In that way, it functions just like human binocular vision. However, processing a pair of images into useful information takes a lot of computing power, so it's critically important that the algorithms used for the image processing execute efficiently. The research presented in Alex’s paper focuses on the imaging computer on MR SAT - which isn't very powerful - so more traditional image processing methods don't work well. Instead, Alex developed an algorithm that uses OpenCV (an open-source image processing library) to perform initial image processing, then applies a special filter designed specifically for the space environment to determine where objects (in this case, MRS SAT) are located. His paper focuses primarily on the algorithm's development, but also includes some extensive testing results.
Alex is the Chief Engineer of the MR and MRS SAT mission for the M-SAT team. The M-SAT team is a diverse group composed of students ranging from freshman to PhD status, in degree programs that span chemistry, aerospace engineering, electrical engineering, computer science, math, to engineering management. All members of M-SAT join voluntarily or during their senior year of their undergraduate aerospace engineering degree if the space path is chosen, and many accept internships/co-ops/employment in the aerospace industry as a direct result of their M-SAT experience.
The team’s origins dates back to the summer of 2002 as the UMR SAT team with the goal of driving innovation in the space industry as part of the Distributed Space Systems (DSS) effort led by NASA. The original concept of the team's first satellite was a short tethered pair of spacecraft that would perform close proximity operations called Missouri-Rolla (MR) and Missouri-Rolla Second (MRS) SAT. M-SAT submitted a proposal and was accepted into the NS-4 competition with the University Nanosat Program (UNP) and after participating and placing highly in the NS-4, NS-6, and NS-7 competitions, the M-SAT team placed first in the Nanosat-8 competition in January 2015.
In addition to MR & MRS SAT, the team is also working on two other satellite missions: the Advanced Propulsion Experiment (APEX), and the Multi-Mode Mission (M3). APEX and M3 are both innovative propulsion technology demonstration satellites, with M3 being the precursor to APEX in a smaller structural form factor and more simplistic design. Both satellites are CubeSats, with M3 being a 3U, and APEX being a 6U.