CAMBRIDGE, MA—A touch-and-go mission to an asteroid far beyond the moon is well underway as part of NASA’s New Frontiers program, promising to break new ground in a range of scientific areas. But making actual contact with the asteroid won’t be easy, scientists say, because at that distance there is no GPS or real-time mission control capabilities to guide a spacecraft.
“We’re focusing on navigating to the surface of an asteroid that’s millions of miles away,” said Courtney Mario, an engineer and system designer at Draper. “Enabling a spacecraft to maneuver in deep space will require equipping it with a way to see the asteroid’s surface and determine its location so that it can safely collect the sample.”
Mario builds vision-aided navigation systems for cars, spacecraft and unmanned aerial vehicles—that is, any vehicle that can’t rely on GPS. Autonomous systems that can operate using not just pre-set instructions but that can think on their own is a hard enough challenge as it is, she said. Add complexities like operating in deep space with no human eyes on the asteroid itself and the challenge gets much harder.
Lockheed Martin Space built the spacecraft for NASA at its facility near Denver. Draper worked with Lockheed Martin and NASA Goddard Space Flight Center engineers to turn the 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 in that OSIRIS-REx will rely on tracking surface features in images.
For the mission to the asteroid, named Bennu, autonomous vision navigation software enabled by Draper will be put to use. This optical-based feature tracking system will use onboard software to match terrain information from a shape model to real-time images captured by cameras as the spacecraft approaches the surface for sample collection. The system uses 3D shape model data to define the expected shape and location of known asteroid features (craters, rocks, etc.) in an onboard catalog. These known features are then correlated with observed features from images of Bennu’s surface taken by the spacecraft to determine the spacecraft’s location during its descent to the sample collection site.
NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt provides overall mission management, systems engineering and safety and mission assurance for OSIRIS-REx. Dante Lauretta of the University of Arizona, Tucson, is the principal investigator, and the University of Arizona also leads the science team and the mission’s science observation planning and data processing. Lockheed Martin Space in Denver built the spacecraft and is currently providing spacecraft operations. OSIRIS-REx is the third mission in NASA’s New Frontiers program. NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, manages New Frontiers for the agency’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington.
Draper’s decades of experience in designing, developing and deploying autonomous platforms for space, air, ground, sea and undersea use cases has led the company to develop technology solutions for a range of environments. Draper developed the software and navigation system for precision airdrop. Under a contract with NASA, Draper provided the space agency with data to assist its development of future human and robotic lander vehicles and exploration systems. Recently the company signed an exclusive long-term partnership for lunar missions with ispace, a lunar exploration company in Tokyo, Japan.