Electroadhesive “Sticky Boom” Rendezvous (An Introduction and Sprint #2)

For those of you who missed my presentation at the annual Space Access Conference earlier this month, Altius publicly rolled-out our first core product–An Electroadhesive “Sticky Boom” for Non-Cooperative Rendezvous and Capture. While the presentation provides some more details, the basic idea was that by combining Kirk Sorensen’s “Boom Rendezvous” concept with SRI’s Electrostatic Adhesion technology, we were able to come up with a way to adhere the end of a boom to almost any surface you can imagine in space. For those of you wondering, this was the “tractor beam” I’ve been talking about for several months.

While Electroadhesion does work better on some surfaces and materials than others, you can still get meaningful adhesion to almost any material imaginable. Plastic, metal, rock, ceramic, MLI or MMOD blankets. Flat surfaces, curved surfaces, multi-faceted surfaces, completely random surfaces like NEOs. Even dust or regolith for that matter. You get all of the “contact at a distance” benefits that Kirk and Joseph Bonometti talked about, while also enabling secure connection with “non-cooperative” objects like uncontrolled satellites, Mars Sample Return sample canisters, space junk, and even asteroids or comets.

As a wise man once said, the possibilities are practically endless–they’re only limited by the height of your creativity or the depth of your neurological disorders.

Sticky Boom for the Mars Sample Return Orbiting Sample Capture Mission


While I’d like to eventually write longer posts, talking about specific applications, what led me to being interested in sticky boom, what kind of new markets it might enable, talking about who our partners are in this development, introducing the new Altius team members, talking about our first proof-of-concept demonstrator “sprint”, etc. I want to keep this first post on the topic short.

The reason is that we just started our second product development “sprint” (to borrow a buzzword from Agile Development), and I wanted to introduce that instead. Basically, we’ve got several cool opportunities to involve Sticky Boom on some technology demonstration and space science missions, but we need to bring the maturity of the technology up pretty rapidly. One particular opportunity involves bringing the technology from a current TRL 4 (proof-of-concept system tested in a lab environment) to at least an early TRL 5 (higher-fidelity proof of concept tested in relevant simulated environments). The challenge is we have to make a case that we’re far enough into TRL 5 to be worth considering, and need to do it before the end of next month.

So we’re starting another sprint.

Here’s the current demo unit that we showed off at a NASA Technology Day in DC on the 15th of March, and which we also showed off at Space Access (I got a lot of laughs by pointing out that since I didn’t have any videos, I decided to bring working hardware):

Sticky Boom "Sprint #1" Demo Unit

Our goal is to rev the entire system, including going to a new boom style, making our own boom deployer, new controls, a new more general-purpose gripper that can grab a wider range of surfaces in more materials, and prepare the whole thing to do a simulated “Mars Sample Return Orbiting Sample Canister Capture” on a ZeroG flight over San Francisco on May 18th.

Our previous sprint, which involved building a demo unit for a DC trip in just a bit over a week and a half, was borderline impossible. This one is probably at least “impossible”. We won’t know if that’s impossible with scare-quotes, or impossible bolded, italicized, and underlined until we try, but we figured that this time we’d share the fun with everyone.

My goal is to put up at least one short blog post every day with at least a photo or a youtube link showing something we got done that day.

Welcome to our second sprint. I hope you enjoy the ride. I know we will.

7 Responses
  1. Trent,
    We should have some youtubes up today. Apologies in advance that they likely won’t be high def, but they’ll at least be something. An honest-to-goodness camera crew would be overkill for our situation.


  2. Roderick Reilly

    Does the “sticky boom” have to make actual physical contact with the object being retrieved, or can it “pull” the object towards itself after coming close?

  3. Further to Roderick’s question, can the effect be reversed? That is, when you release a satellite can the Electroadhesive reverse polarity and gently repel?