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The first Cygnus demonstration mission is scheduled to take place in the first three months of 2012. Two commercial resupply flights are scheduled for later in the year. (Orbital Sciences Corp.)

When commercial unmanned cargo spacecraft dock with the International Space Station next year, Canadian technology will help them pull off the perfect parking job.

A system developed by Ottawa-based Neptec Design Group and tested on three NASA space shuttle flights will be used in the unmanned Cygnus spacecraft being developed by Dulles, Va.-based Orbital Sciences Corp., Neptec announced this week.

"It's really gratifying to see after our three test flights that we now have a commercial application for the product," said Mike Kearns, vice president of space exploration for Neptec, Friday.

Unmanned cargo spaceships

Unmanned cargo spaceships have already been sent to the International Space Station by RussiaJapan and the European Space Agency. They are typically designed to be single-use craft that burn up in the atmosphere upon reentry.

In 2008, NASA awarded contracts to Orbital Sciences Corp. and SpaceX Technologies Corp. to deliver a minimum of 20 tonnes of cargo to the International Space Station. Both companies are currently developing unmanned spacecraft, and SpaceX is scheduled to launch its first flights later in 2011.

"It's very exciting and important for the company."

The company would not disclose the amount of the contract, citing competitive reasons.

The Cygnus spacecraft will be used by Orbital to fulfill its $1.9 billion contract with NASA for eight cargo delivery flights to the International Space Station after the end of NASA's space shuttle program.

NASA's final space shuttle flight returned to Earth this past Wednesday, forcing it to rely on commercial flights for the next few years.

The first Neptec sensor will be used on the second Cygnus flight, and two others will be on each flight after that for a total of 13. Each spacecraft is designed to burn up in the Earth's atmosphere after delivering its cargo.

Neptec's TriDAR rendezvous and docking system uses lasers to locate a specific object in space, such as the International Space Station, based on its geometry.

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The system has been tested on three shuttle flights since 2009, including Atlantis's final flight. (NASA)

Kearns said that makes it unique among similar systems, which typically require a target to be placed at the docking location. Instead, a 3D model of the object is programmed into the system and compared to the objects it detects in space. The system tracks objects and sends the information to the spacecraft's mechanical systems which will move the spacecraft accordingly. In the case of Cygnus, the spacecraft will be guided into a location near the space station called a berthing box, where it will be picked up by the station's Canadarm2 and guided to a docking port.

The system's ability to find and track the space station was tested on shuttle flights in 2009 and 2010, as well as aboard Atlantis for NASA's final space shuttle flight. However, the astronauts did not actually rely on the information as the Cygnus spacecraft will.

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Neptec's TriDAR rendezvous and docking system uses lasers to locate a specific object in space, such as the International Space Station, based its geometry. (Neptec Design Group)

Kearns said Neptec spent eight years developing the TriDAR system with funding from NASA and the Canadian Space Agency. The flexible technology can also be used for other kinds of automatic navigation, such as to guide a Mars rover, Kearns added.

"We're hoping to find other applications in the space world."

The first Cygnus demonstration mission is scheduled to take place in the first three months of 2012. Two commercial resupply flights are scheduled for later in the year.