Smoother reentry and gentle runway landing will protect scientific experiments returning from ISS
CAMBRIDGE, MA – When NASA brings back delicate biological experiments from the International Space Station (ISS), a smooth reentry and gentle landing can help avoid damaging the microorganisms, cells, tissue cultures and small plants. For years, NASA smoothly landed at the Kennedy Space Center’s Shuttle Landing Facility, enabling the science experiments to be studied in the laboratory within six hours, rather than the days or weeks typical of ocean landings. This significantly reduced the time that the materials were exposed to the strongest effects of the Earth’s gravity. But since the retirement of the space shuttle in 2011, NASA no longer has access to this smooth runway landing option.
Last month, Draper began working on an alternative solution. Draper is studying the capabilities that will enable Sierra Nevada Corporation’s (SNC) uncrewed Dream Chaser Cargo System to make smoother returns from space and land on runways as part of a series of missions for NASA under the recently awarded Commercial Resupply Services 2 (CRS2) contract. The Dream Chaser Cargo System is capable of delivering more than 12,000 pounds of pressurized and unpressurized cargo to low-Earth orbit, and is the only reusable spacecraft that features a lifting body similar to that of the space shuttle. It is also able to gently land on government and commercial runways anywhere in the world.
For SNC’s Dream Chaser Cargo System, Draper will apply its flight-proven capabilities that enable cargo delivery to the ISS aboard Orbital ATK’s Cygnus spacecraft. The capabilities include mission automation and guidance, navigation and control (GN&C) software, as well as a human-rated fault-tolerant flight computer.
“Draper engineers have played a crucial role in every manned space mission conducted by the United States to date, and we can now apply that expertise to uncrewed cargo delivery,” said Draper President and CEO Kaigham J. Gabriel. “From developing the GN&C system for the Apollo missions and the space shuttle, to creating the software that automates many of the operations on the ISS and Orion, astronauts have relied on Draper technology to complete their missions for decades. We look forward to expanding service on space programs as part of SNC’s team.”
During uncrewed Dream Chaser CRS2 flights, Draper’s Timeliner software (which automates many of the operations aboard the ISS) will control the spacecraft, including executing the gentle runway touch down. Dream Chaser also will leverage the Draper entry system demonstrated in December 2014 during NASA’s first flight test of the Orion spacecraft.
Draper develops novel PN&T solutions by combining precision instrumentation, advanced hardware technology, comprehensive algorithm and software development skills, and unique infrastructure and test resources to deploy system solutions. The scope of these efforts generally focuses on guidance, navigation, and control GN&C-related needs, ranging from highly accurate, inertial solutions for (ICBMs) and inertial/stellar solutions for SLBMs, to integrated Inertial Navigation System(INS)/GPS solutions for gun-fired munitions, to multisensor configurations for soldier navigation in GPS-challenged environments. Emerging technologies under development that leverage and advance commercial technology offerings include celestial navigation (compact star cameras), inertial navigation (MEMS, cold atom sensors), precision time transfer (precision optics, chip-scale atomic clocks) and vision-based navigation (cell phone cameras, combinatorial signal processing algorithms).
Draper combines mission planning, PN&T, situational awareness, and novel GN&C designs to develop and deploy autonomous platforms for ground, air, sea and undersea needs. These systems range in complexity from human-in-the-loop to systems that operate without any human intervention. The design of these systems generally involves decomposing the mission needs into sets of scenarios that result in trade studies that lead to an optimized solution with key performance requirements. Draper continues to advance the field of autonomy through research in the areas of mission planning, sensing and perception, mobility, learning, real-time performance evaluation and human trust in autonomous systems.
Draper has developed mission-critical fault-tolerant systems for more than four decades. These systems are deployed in space, air, and undersea platforms that require extremely high reliability to accomplish challenging missions. These solutions incorporate robust hardware and software partitioning to achieve fault detection, identification and reconfiguration. Physical redundancy or multiple, identical designs protect against random hardware failures and employ rigor in evaluating differences in computed results to achieve exact consensus, even in the presence of faults. The latest designs leverage cost-effective, multicore commercial processors to implement software-based redundancy management systems in compact single-board layouts that perform the key timing, communication, synchronization and voting algorithm functions needed to maintain seamless operation after one, two or three arbitrary faults of individual components.