OSIRIS-REx launched Sept. 8 with Draper-enabled flight software
CAMBRIDGE, MA – As NASA extends its reach into space through the New Frontiers Program, spacecraft must become increasingly autonomous. During unmanned missions deep into our solar system, ground controllers cannot send time-critical commands to a spacecraft. Among the New Frontiers missions of New Horizons to Pluto and Juno to Jupiter, NASA’s Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification-Regolith Explorer (OSIRIS-REx) recently launched on Sept. 8 starting its seven-year journey to Bennu—a near-Earth asteroid.
The mission is unique for several reasons. The OSIRIS-REx mission will be the first U.S. mission to carry samples from an asteroid back to Earth and the largest sample returned from space since the Apollo era, says NASA. The spacecraft’s name is an acronym of the mission objectives, seeking a better understanding of our solar system’s formation 4.5 billion years ago; studying them can provide insight for future space exploration.
A groundbreaking mission such as this needs a highly sophisticated, autonomous system behind it.
Due to the distance between Bennu and Earth—and the time it takes to send a single command—autonomous software is critical for OSIRIS-REx to safely collect a sample of the asteroid. “This will be the first time an optical-based system is used in this way to make contact with a small body in space,” explained Courtney Mario of Draper’s Algorithms and Software group.
Once OSIRIS-REx reaches Bennu in 2018, it will begin a two-year-long survey of the asteroid, collecting data used to form a shape model of the terrain, in addition to fulfilling other science and navigation objectives. In July 2020, vision navigation software enabled by Draper will be put to use. The optical-based feature tracking system will use onboard cameras to match terrain information from the shape model to real-time images collected as the spacecraft approaches the surface for sample collection.
Lockheed Martin Space Systems built the spacecraft for NASA at its facility near Denver. Draper worked with Lockheed Martin engineers to turn spacecraft builder’s research and development computer code into robust flight software using vision navigation systems. The algorithms and software are unique to most space missions.
While most spacecraft rely on a light detection and ranging (LIDAR) laser altimeter to determine proximity and relationship to nearby objects in space, OSIRIS-REx takes advantage of a dual system. The spacecraft is equipped with both a navigational LIDAR system and the optical-based feature tracking system, and will use the best available system—or a combination of the two—when the spacecraft is ready for the sample collection.
Draper, now under contract with NASA, will continue to improve mission robustness during the two-year journey to Bennu. Between the launch and OSIRIS-REx’s arrival in August 2018, Draper will work with Lockheed Martin and other members of the science team to determine the shape model fidelity needed for a successful asteroid sample collection. The potential success for this applied flight software in the OSIRIS-REx mission to asteroid Bennu could mean less expensive alternatives to the LIDAR system for any type of mission in space.
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 combines specific domain expertise and knowledge of how to apply the latest analytics techniques to extract meaningful information from raw data to better understand complex, dynamic processes. Our system design approach encompasses effective organization and processing of large data sets, automated analysis using algorithms and exploitation of results. To facilitate user interaction with these processed data sets, Draper applies advanced techniques to automate understanding and correlation of patterns in the data. Draper’s expertise encompasses machine learning (including deep learning), information fusion from diverse and heterogeneous data sources, optimized coupling of data acquisition and analysis and novel methods for analysis of imagery and video data.