Chinese space experts have developed the world's most sensitive "eye" that enables the autonomous rendezvous and docking of two spacecraft -- flying eight times faster than bullets -- more efficiently and safely.
The "eye" is China's newly developed third-generation rendezvous and docking CCD optical imaging sensor. It will be used on China's second orbiting space lab, Tiangong-2, the Chang'e-5 lunar probe and the permanent manned space station, according to China Academy of Space Technology (CAST).
China plans to launch Tiangong-2 in 2016, and send Chang'e-5 to collect samples from the moon and return to earth around 2017. It also aims to put a permanent manned space station into service around 2022.
"Good 'eyesight' is crucial for one spacecraft chasing another for hundreds of thousands of kilometers to achieve a perfect rendezvous and docking -- it's like threading the needle," says Gong Dezhu, a CAST designer who worked on the CCD optical imaging sensor.
"The last 150 meters between the two spacecraft is the most critical moment. A slight deviation during docking might lead to a disaster like the one caused by Mann, the main antagonist in the movie Interstellar," Gong says.
Compared with the CCD optical imaging sensor used in the docking of Tiangong-1 and the Shenzhou spacecraft, the new "eye" can see clearer under direct sunlight, which will greatly improve safety. The window period of the docking process will be twice the length, Gong says.
"And the reaction time between the 'eye' capturing the first sight of its target and recognizing it has been shortened from 10 seconds to less than one second," Gong says.
The sensor's weight and power consumption is only half that of comparable products internationally, says Gong.
Such "eyes" can also be used on mechanical arms, and for refueling and repairing of spacecraft, as well as aerial refueling and docking of underwater vehicles, experts say.