MIT students develop space collision VR tool

A six-person team of MIT students and alumni has won a top prize at the US Air Force Visionary Q-Prize competition with a virtual reality (VR) visualisation tool that could help to prevent space collisions.

CoSMIC (Command, Sensing, and Mapping Information Center) enables satellite operators to process more data than they could using a standard two-dimensional screen. According to MIT, the technology minimises mental workload and allows operators to more easily perform maneuvers and focus their attention on user-selected objects.

The $100,000 Visionary Q-Prize competition, hosted by the Air Force Research Labs Space Vehicles Directorate and the Wright Brothers Institute, was launched last year to encourage non-traditional sources with innovative products and ideas to engage with military customers to develop solutions for safe and secure operations in space.

“More than 23,000 objects—from satellites to debris to spent rocket bodies—are in orbit and being tracked,” explained Eric Hinterman, a graduate student in MIT’s Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics and a member of the winning team. “The challenge was to develop a user interface to help visualise these objects and predict if they’re going to collide, and what we can do to avoid that.”

Hinterman and his team used commercially available components, including an HTC Vive Pro headset and a hand-tracking sensor, to build their prototype.

“You put on the headset, and it immerses you in the world of the satellites,” Hinterman said. “You’re looking at the Earth, and satellites surround it as tiny pinpricks of light. Their orbital data are accurate, and you can zoom in on any of them.”

“Space is such a dynamic and complex environment that is becoming more and more congested and contested. We need to be able to display and interpret data faster and more accurately, so we can respond quickly and appropriately to any kind of threat, whether it’s adversarial, space debris, or satellites in close proximity.”

General Jay Raymond, Air Force Space Command and Joint Forces Space Component commander

General Jay Raymond, Air Force Space Command and Joint Forces Space Component commander, said: “Space is such a dynamic and complex environment that is becoming more and more congested and contested. We need to be able to display and interpret data faster and more accurately, so we can respond quickly and appropriately to any kind of threat, whether it’s adversarial, space debris, or satellites in close proximity.”

“The VQ-Prize challenge is a prime example of how we’re thinking and sourcing, outside the box, to get after rapid, agile onboarding of new technology that will make space operations safer for everyone.”

Main image caption: Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics graduate student Eric Hinterman (left) and Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science graduate student Eswar Anandapadmanaban are members of the MIT team that took first prize in the US Air Force’s Visionary Q-Prize competition

Image credit: William Litant/AeroAstro

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