CAMBRIDGE, MA – Precision guidance and navigation is critical to success and safety in spaceflight. Today, as NASA’s flight test of its next generation vehicle for deep space exploration—Orion— landed successfully on target in the Pacific Ocean, it was guided by software developed by Draper Laboratory.
“As with Draper’s past contributions to the U.S. space program, Lab engineers were proud to develop a key component of Orion mission—key guidance and navigation algorithms,” said Séamus Tuohy, Draper Laboratory’s director of space systems. “Orion reentered the Earth’s atmosphere at a speed of more than 20,000 miles per hour –faster than any human space vehicle since the days of Apollo. Decelerating at nearly 10 times the pull of gravity, Draper’s PredGuid system successfully guided the vehicle to its intended landing site.”
PredGuid is a sophisticated predictor-corrector algorithm developed by Draper and is an enhanced version of the Lab’s Apollo entry guidance algorithm. PredGuid provides significantly improved landing capability by estimating parameters including aerodynamic and atmospheric properties –
increasing the available landing area for a high speed return by hundreds of kilometers and providing precision accuracy to within two kilometers at chute deployment. Future versions of this algorithm will allow Orion to “skip” off of the atmosphere on return flights from deep space missions, enabling the spacecraft to reach a wider landing area or reach a designated landing site from a wider range of reentry times, both of which are particularly important in an emergency return. Teaming with NASA and Lockheed Martin engineers, Draper also implemented the navigation filter that provides Orion with its location to within a few meters during reentry, without the need for large, ground-based antenna tracking.
Building off experience with Apollo and the space shuttle, Draper engineers are working on guidance and navigation algorithms as part of the Orion team led by Lockheed Martin Space Systems of Denver, Colo., as well as directly for NASA’s Johnson Space Center.
NASA plans to use Orion to transport astronauts beyond low Earth orbit to destinations including asteroids and Mars. The Draper PredGuid algorithm will enable the crafts’ landing during those missions.
Following this demonstration, Draper will incorporate data from the flight and add additional functionality to support a future unmanned flight past the Moon. The first manned flight of the Orion vehicle is a lunar voyage currently envisioned for 2021.
Draper’s work on the Orion program builds on its legacy of support to NASA, which began with the Lab’s design of the Apollo Guidance Computer, and has continued with programs including the International Space Station and the Space Shuttle.