International Space Station (NASA)

For space docking, the computer takes the wheel

It has become a cliché in space-based thriller movies: An astronaut with a steady hand and a furrowed brow manually guides a spacecraft into a docking station, always with seconds to spare. In real life, however, NASA aims to automate that process – along with other autopiloting and tracking duties -- with the Raven project.

The Raven module, which the space agency says is about the size of a piece of carry-on luggage, would guide docking operations using visible, infrared and lidar sensors and machine-vision algorithms.

But what makes Raven’s autopiloting possible is the SpaceCube computing platform.

SpaceCube is a radiation-tolerant high-speed computing system that NASA developed in 2009. It provides the processing power to analyze data from the sensors and send instructions to the autopilot components. The technology is nearly as reliable as the previous processor, yet 10 to 100 times faster, making it capable of executing complex computations once limited to ground-based systems.

The Raven module was sent Feb.19 via SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft to the International Space Station, where it will be used on missions such the Restore-L satellite servicing robotic spacecraft.

About the Author

Matt Leonard is a reporter/producer at GCN.

Before joining GCN, Leonard worked as a local reporter for The Smithfield Times in southeastern Virginia. In his time there he wrote about town council meetings, local crime and what to do if a beaver dam floods your back yard. Over the last few years, he has spent time at The Commonwealth Times, The Denver Post and WTVR-CBS 6. He is a graduate of Virginia Commonwealth University, where he received the faculty award for print and online journalism.

Leonard can be contacted at or follow him on Twitter @Matt_Lnrd.

Click here for previous articles by Leonard.

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