QinetiQ Space won a European Space Agency contract to develop an International Berthing Docking Mechanism, which the Farnborough, England, company says will allow smaller spacecraft to either dock or berth with the international space station at lower speeds than current ship-to-ship interfaces allow.
Under the first phase of the contract, which runs through 2015, QinetiQ will develop and build an engineering model to be tested on the ground, according to a June 3 press release. QinetiQ said this contract is expected to lead to a follow-on development phase lasting until 2017.
Financial terms were not disclosed.
“Until now, docking mechanisms requiring a minimum level of energy for their actuation have been used and were designed for large vehicles such as the Space Shuttle,” Erik Masure, managing director at QinetiQ Space, said in the press release. “This has meant that the attachment of new generation lighter spacecraft to the ISS has had to take place at a fast speed for a connection to be created, which can lead to potential issues with high forces in play.”
Russia’s Soyuz and Progress spacecraft and Europe’s Automated Transfer Vehicle use onboard propulsion to dock with the space station, while Japan’s uncrewed H-2 Transfer Vehicle and the cargo tugs operated by Space Exploration Technologies and Orbital Sciences rely on the station’s robotic arm to berth with the orbital outpost. Currently, spacecraft that must be berthed with the station attach to different nodes than do craft capable of docking.