Autonomous Onboard Point Source Detection by Small Exploration Spacecraft


Small spacecraft platforms are a promising low-cost approach to accelerate exploration of small bodies, addressing the space community’s interest in origin science, planetary resources, and planetary defense. However, they can be challenging platforms for detecting and imaging low brightness targets. Difficulties include constrained bandwidth, which limits the volume of data that can be downlinked; attitude instability, which limits exposure time; small instrument apertures, which reduce sensitivity; and cosmic ray contamination, which creates illusory sources. Mission designers can address all these problems simultaneously by shifting image analysis across the communications gap. Spacecraft can use onboard data analysis to detect sources directly, or downlink parsimonious summary products for detection on the ground. One promising approach is to acquire stacks of short consecutive exposures, and then coregister and coadd them onboard. This work analyzes a coaddition algorithm that is designed to be robust against small spacecraft challenges. We evaluate factors affecting performance, such as attitude control and camera noise systematics, in regimes typical of small spacecraft missions. We motivate the algorithm design by considering its application to NEAScout, a mission representing a new generation of small (sub-50 kg) exploration spacecraft having very small instrument apertures and data rates below 1 kbyte/s. Here, onboard analysis allows detection and rendezvous with far smaller and fainter objects, dramatically reducing the cost and complexity of primitive bodies exploration. Image credit: Neascout mission, NASA.

Proceedings of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific, 127, 2015