NASA on Friday launched a robotic spacecraft to test technology that will pave the way for automated rendezvous and docking systems of spaceships in orbit.
The 363-kg DART (Demonstration of Autonomous Rendezvous Technology) craft and its booster rocket Pegasus were carried by a Stargazer L-1011 aircraft over the Pacific Ocean to an altitude of about 9,100 meters before being released at 1:26 p.m. EDT (1726 GMT). The aircraft took off from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.
NASA plans to learn from the program and prepare technology for future space missions involving automated spacecraft docking, robotic repair or unmanned cargo delivery.
Russia has used automated docking technology for years.
DART, which is equipped with navigational computers and sensors, is expected to catch up with a retired experimental communications satellite owned by the US military. The mission costs about 110 million US dollars.
The military satellite, called MUBLCOM, is flying 760 km above the earth. It was launched in 1999 and carries special reflectors for use in guidance systems similar to the one aboard DART.
DART is expected to close in on the target satellite and move away. It will attempt rendezvous maneuvers, including moving around the satellite and descending from above.
DART is managed by NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsvill, Alabama.
The robotic test craft will burn itself away during re-entry after completing its 24-hour mission.