Large, lightweight, deployable solar array structures have been identified as a key enabling technology for NASA, with analysis and design of these structures being the top challenge in meeting the overall goals of the NASA Space Technology Roadmap. Deployment ground testing and qualification of these and other deployable structures is a uniquely difficult task, as the intent is to validate microgravity performance and integrity within a 1 g testing environment. Existing gravity offloading test support equipment used for this purpose have several limitations: passive systems dynamically couple the test article to the offloader, active systems are currently limited to single-point offloading, and offloaders are typically immobile and designed for a single application. The proposed SBIR project seeks to improve existing gravity offloader equipment through the development of a portable and adaptable system that can be used for offloading any deployable structure while also improving accuracy through active control. Phase I of this SBIR project will demonstrate feasibility of this system through the development and testing of a prototype offloader unit. In Phase II, a full multipoint offloader system will be developed and demonstrated on a relevant deployable solar array structure.
This technology will directly fulfill a need identified in NASA’s Technology Roadmap (TA13) by providing a “portable gravity offload system [for] dynamic testing in simulated lunar, Martian, or other microgravity environments.” It will enable qualification testing of deployable solar arrays, antennas, instrument booms, etc., and with further development, it could be used for microgravity testing of spacecraft maneuvering, such as automated docking, robotic systems, and in-space construction.
The next generation of DoD and commercial spacecraft will require ever-larger solar arrays, antennas, and other structural elements that stand to benefit from improved qualification testing capabilities. ATA has also received several inquiries from the entertainment industry regarding possible adaptation of offloading technologies to a “zero gravity” theme park attraction or display. Other potential applications include industrial manufacturing and therapeutic treatment.