Formation Control Testbed (FCT)

The Formation Control Testbed (or "Robodome") at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory

The Formation Control Testbed (FCT) is used for developing autonomous guidance, navigation and control (GNC) algorithms and relative sensor technologies. Its unique capabilities allow high fidelity, system-level ground testing of spacecraft architectures and autonomous operations.

The FCT, colloquially known as the “Robodome,” is a technology development testbed for a variety of research areas and future mission concepts including:

  • Precision formation flight (distributed telescopes, Earth science)
  • Proximity operations and descent through landing (small bodies and moons)
  • Autonomous rendezvous and docking (sample capture, debris capture)
  • Vision-based and relative sensor development
  • Small satellite characterization and motion studies
  • Robotic manipulation, interaction and reactive dynamics

The FCT comprises two air-bearing-supported robots, each with full, independent 6 degree-of-freedom motion. It allows testing with flight-like hardware on a platform featuring 16 thrusters for translation and attitude control, along with reaction wheels, onboard inertial measurement sensors, processing capabilities, wireless communications, controlled lighting conditions for vision-based navigation, and external truth sensing of motion.

A key advantage of the FCT is that it allows investigations into the true dynamics of a spacecraft under thruster control and its interaction with sampling/landing surfaces or docking with other bodies in space. In particular, the JPL Research & Technology Development task System-level Proximity Operations Demonstration for Primitive Bodies focused on developing core technologies for a Comet Surface Sample Return mission concept. The task demonstrated closed-loop spacecraft motion relative to a surrogate comet surface with environmental disturbances and space-like lighting conditions. The controlled motion of the spacecraft met attitude and relative velocity requirements to successfully sample the small body with a candidate sampling tool. 


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