CAMBRIDGE, MA—NASA will test new “eyes” from Draper for its next lunar lander, thanks in part to NASA’s Flight Opportunities Program, or FOP. Draper, known for its work on the Apollo Program and International Space Station, is leading development of a new vision-aided navigation system that can help lunar landers better detect large hazards on the moon.
In 2019, the prototype vision system launched into the air aboard a rocket built by Masten Space Systems in Mojave, California, and collected data as the rocket made a precise landing at a predesignated target. That same year the system flew over Arizona on a high-altitude balloon at 108,000 feet—and successfully processed data from those high altitudes—in a mission managed by World View Enterprises. In 2020, the system was also flown to the edge of space on a Blue Origin New Shepard rocket.
The camera-based navigation system photographs the terrain beneath a descending spacecraft and matches it with onboard maps allowing the craft to detect its location relative to the desired landing point. This latest work will test an enhanced capability: camera-based hazard detection. New software added to the vision system allows the sensor to autonomously detect boulders that would potentially damage the lander as it touches down and allows for the re-designation of a new, safer landing target. The capability enables access to more challenging landing sites through pin-point landing and large hazard detection.
NASA’s test, expected later in 2021, will put Draper’s navigation system on Masten’s Xodiac rocket, which is capable of a vertical takeoff and vertical landing (VTVL). The “intelligent” rockets will carry the vision-aided navigation system capable of reacting to multi-source information including flight status, trajectory and environmental conditions.
Brett Streetman, Draper’s lead engineer on the program, is already planning the next iteration of the vision-aided navigation system.
“By testing in relevant flight environments with realistic hazards, we are enhancing our chances of success for a lunar mission,” Streetman said. “Draper is on a path to integrating capabilities tested during the previous FOP flights—including terrain relative navigation and visual odometry—into a single, integrated vision-aided navigation and hazard detection system.”
A vision-aided navigation mission allows for opportunities to land within more challenging environments and pursue new discoveries about the moon and other planets. “We predict that landers based on our system will have a very productive future in our coming space explorations,” Streetman said.