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.