Draper to Support NASA JSC on Advanced GN&C and Avionics Technology
CAMBRIDGE, MA – As spacecraft travel outside of low Earth orbit (LEO), they frequently lack access to the omnipresent communications and navigation signals available to anyone on Earth with a smartphone. NASA can provide astronauts with access to its Deep Space Network, the agency’s array of giant radio antennas that support interplanetary missions, but even with this access, astronauts approaching Mars may face signal transport lags of up to 20 minutes or more as they wait for a response from Earth, a delay that would make it difficult to incorporate the information into decisions on time-critical maneuvers.
As part of NASA’s team developing the Orion Spacecraft, Draper is contributing advanced guidance, navigation and control (GN&C) technology to human deep space exploration beyond LEO. These technologies, which may include vision-aided navigation that provides onboard positioning information without contact with Earth or satellite signals, are currently planned to be flight tested on Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1), an unmanned vehicle that will demonstrate technology needed for a journey to Mars.
This work is just one part of a five-year contract that NASA’s Johnson Space Center (JSC) awarded to Draper on April 1. The award, which is worth up to $38 million, follows several similar contracts with JSC that have drawn on Draper’s GN&C and avionics expertise, as well as automation solutions.
“This work builds on Draper’s long history of collaboration with NASA JSC, starting with Apollo and continuing on every succeeding NASA human space program,” said Seamus Tuohy, Draper director of space systems. “Draper continues to provide advanced technical solutions to the most challenging problems of exploration.”
The guidance and navigation algorithms that Draper is contributing to NASA’s Orion team successfully guided the spacecraft to its intended landing site during an unmanned flight in December 2014.
As human exploration spacecraft travel farther from LEO and missions are longer, the need for time-critical, near-constant navigation becomes mandatory. Answering this need, vision-aided navigation technology could help Orion autonomously plan and execute its approach to planets like Mars and its return to Earth. It also could help enable the spacecraft to rendezvous and dock with a deep-space habitat or asteroid, said Rick Loffi, who leads Draper’s Houston office.
Draper developed the optical sensing technology as part of an effort to help troops navigate without access to GPS signals. Draper is applying it to other situations where GPS signals may be unavailable, such as guiding airdropped supplies to troops on the ground and tracking astronauts as they move through the International Space Station to understand how they use the habitat. Draper is also developing optical sensing technology to aid navigation accuracy for strategic defense systems.
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.