Satellite Technology Feature Article
DARPA Goes to the Air Hockey Tables to Test Satellite Dock
By Steve Anderson, Contributing TMCnet Writer
DARPA—the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency—has been responsible for some strange and unusual projects in its time. DARPA has been behind a multitude of projects from universal translator systems to flying cars and beyond. Now, they've done something that may well be even more outlandish than anything it has done so far: to test a satellite dock system, they've built a giant air hockey table weighing just over 37 tons.
While this sounds preposterous, DARPA's plan actually has sound physics behind it. Instead of shooting prototypes into space, at huge costs, simply develop a large, but significantly scaled down against the infinity of space, system that can simulate weightlessness. In this case, it's an air hockey table, which uses compressed air to keep objects slightly aloft and, thus, weightless. This particular air hockey table is called a Gravity Offset Table, and represents the only such table in existence as of right now. It's a 20 by 15 by 1.5 foot surface made from a single slab of granite, which has been honed to a tolerance of + / - 0.0018 inches flat. Then, using what are known as air bearings, essentially large jets, objects can be moved across the nearly perfectly flat surface in an almost frictionless environment, approximately what would be had in space.
Admittedly, this isn't new; NASA had been doing work with “flat floors” for some time before this, but this may well be the first time that air bearings and a tightly machined granite slab were brought together in such a fashion. DARPA's design should do the job, though, and will likely prove a fair approximation of what satellites will go through out in Earth's orbit, but the concept is still sufficiently outlandish to be noticed.
Still, it's hard not to appreciate the cleverness of the design, though, and considering the recent push toward getting back out into space by governments and corporations alike for any of a host of reasons, having a stable surface on which space deployments can be tested is a very good idea. Hopefully DARPA's newest satellite docking tester will prove to help out the push to get back into space, and take advantage of the wealth of resources located beyond our atmosphere.
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Edited by Brooke Neuman