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COBALT Flight Demonstrations Fuse Technologies to Gain Precision Landing Results

COBALT

Flight Opportunities Team

Team members from the NASA COBALT team and the Masten Xodiac team hold a pre-campaign TIM (Technical Interchange Meeting) to iron out remaining technical hurdles and operations logistics in preparation for the COBALT payload integration onto Xodiac for the open-loop flight testing. The image is taken in the Masten Xodiac hangar, and Xodiac is in the background. The COBALT payload sits atop Xodiac in the empty payload frame. Credits: NASA

Many regions in the solar system beckon for exploration, but they are considered unreachable due to technology gaps in current landing systems. The CoOperative Blending of Autonomous Landing Technologies (COBALT) project, conducted by NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate’s (STMD) and Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate, could change that.

Through a flight campaign this month through April, COBALT will mature and demonstrate new guidance, navigation and control (GN&C) technologies to enable precision landing for future exploration missions.

“COBALT will allow us to reduce the risk in developing future landing systems and will benefit robotic landers to planetary surfaces by allowing for autonomous precision landing,” said LaNetra Tate, STMD’s Game Changing Development (GCD) program executive. “This will definitely become a game changing technology.”

The campaign will pair and test new landing sensor technologies that promise to yield the highest precision navigation solution ever tested for NASA space landing applications.

The technologies, a Navigation Doppler Lidar (NDL), which provides ultra-precise velocity and line-of-sight range measurements, and the Lander Vision System (LVS), which provides terrain relative navigation, will be integrated and flight tested aboard a rocket-powered vertical takeoff, vertical landing (VTVL) platform. The platform, named Xodiac, was developed by Masten Space Systems in Mojave, California.

Flight Opportunities Team

Team members from NASA Langley demonstrating the new Navigation Doppler Lidar (NDL) to NASA Headquarters personnel from AES and GCD. Credits: NASA

“In this first flight campaign, we plan to successfully complete the integration, flight testing and performance analysis of the COBALT payload,” explained John M. Carson III, COBALT project manager. “This is considered a passive test, where COBALT will be solely collecting data, while the Xodiac vehicle will rely on its GPS for active navigation.””

In a follow-up flight campaign in summer 2017, COBALT will become the active navigation system for Xodiac, and the vehicle will use GPS only as a safety monitor and backup.

“The knowledge from these flights will lead into the development of systems for deployment in future NASA landing missions to Mars and the moon,” said Carson.

So how does it work?

The technologies themselves are very different, but together they are a recipe for precision landing.

The NDL, developed at NASA’s Langley Research Center (LaRC), is an evolution of a prototype flown by the former ALHAT (Autonomous precision Landing and Hazard Avoidance Technology) project on the NASA Morpheus vehicle in 2014. The new NDL is 60 percent smaller, operates at nearly triple the speed and provides longer range measurements.

“NDL functionally is similar to the radar systems used in previous Mars landers, Phoenix and Mars Science Laboratory,” explained Farzin Amzajerdian, NDL Chief Scientist at Langley. “The major difference is that the NDL uses a laser instead of a microwave as its transmitter. Operating at almost four orders of magnitude higher frequency makes the measurement a whole lot more accurate. NDL also is much smaller than radar systems, which is a big deal as every ounce counts when sending a lander to Mars or other destinations.”

LVS, developed at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), is a camera-based navigation system that photographs the terrain beneath a descending spacecraft and matches it with onboard maps to determine vehicle location, explained Carl Seubert, the COBALT project lead at JPL.

“This allows the craft to detect its location relative to large landing hazards seen in the onboard maps, such as large boulders and terrain outcroppings,” Seubert said.

COBALT is one springboard for these technologies, which will find their way into future missions. The NDL design is geared toward infusion onto near-term lunar, Mars or other missions. The LVS was developed for infusion onto the Mars 2020 robotic lander mission, and has application to many other missions.

“Both NDL and LVS come from more than a decade of NASA research and development investments across multiple projects within robotic and human exploration programs, and from the hard work and dedication of personnel across the agency,” said Carson.

“These COBALT technologies give moon and Mars spacecraft the ability to land much more precisely, improving access to interesting sites in complex terrain and to any exploration assets previously deployed to the surface,” said Jason Crusan, director of NASA’s Advanced Exploration Systems division. “Landings will also be more controlled and gentle, potentially allowing smaller landing legs and propellant reserves, and resulting in lower mission risk, mass and cost.”

The COBALT team is managed at NASA’s Johnson Space Center (JSC) in Houston, and comprises of engineers from JSC, JPL in Pasadena, California, and LaRC in Hampton, Virginia. All three centers will jointly conduct the flight campaign and post-flight data analysis.

“The progress and success of the COBALT project has relied on the team dynamic between NASA centers that started during the prior ALHAT project,” says Carson. “The team has a common goal to develop and deploy precision landing GN&C technologies, and they maintain constant communication and a focus on collaboration to iron out the technical challenges and operational constraints required to develop, interface and successfully test the sensors and payload.”

COBALT involves multiple NASA programs, including the Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate’s Advanced Exploration Systems (AES), and the Game Changing Development and Flight Opportunities programs, both under STMD.

Based at NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center in Edwards, California, the Flight Opportunities program funds technology development flight tests on commercial suborbital space providers of which Masten is a vendor. The program has previously tested the LVS on the Masten rocket and validated the technology for the Mars 2020 rover.

The COBALT flights will demonstrate blended LVS and NDL measurement viability for the precise, controlled soft landing of future missions. While the sensors are key enablers for future human and robotic landing missions to Mars, the moon and other solar system destinations, the COBALT payload also will provide a reusable platform for integration and testing of other precision landing and hazard avoidance capabilities developed within NASA or industry.

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*Source: NASA.gov

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Laser-based Navigation Sensor Could Be Standard for Planetary Landing Missions

Bruce Barnes, who does electronics engineering and system integration for the Navigation Doppler Lidar, makes final preparations to the sensor in a lab at NASA's Langley Research Center. Credits: NASA/David C. Bowman

Bruce Barnes, who does electronics engineering and system integration for the Navigation Doppler Lidar, makes final preparations to the sensor in a lab at NASA’s Langley Research Center.Credits: NASA/David C. Bowman

A laser-guided navigation sensor that could help future rovers make safe, precise landings on Mars or destinations beyond will soon undergo testing in California’s Mojave Desert.

The Navigation Doppler Lidar, or NDL, which was developed at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia, will be flight tested aboard a rocket-powered Vertical Take-off, Vertical Landing (VTVL) platform, named Xodiac, developed by Masten Space Systems, in Mojave, California.

Cobalt Device

NDL is about the size of a breadbox and contains three lasers, each about the size of a piece of corn on the cob. “This is an incredible piece of engineering,” says Farzin Amzajerdian, NDL PI. “It’s beautiful.”Credits: NASA/David C. Bowman

The NDL will be a part of a NASA payload called COBALT, or CoOperative Blending of Autonomous Landing Technologies, which has been a joint technology development effort between multiple NASA centers, including Langley, the Johnson Space Center (JSC) in Houston, Texas, and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California.

“When we fly airplanes and helicopters or drive cars we use GPS to tell us where we are, which direction we are moving and how fast we are moving,” said Farzin Amzajerdian, principal investigator for NDL at Langley. “But when you go to Mars and the moon there’s no GPS, so you have to have something onboard.”

That’s where NDL comes in. The unit is comprised of a small electronics box connected by fiberoptic cables to three lenses that transmit three laser beams. Those beams reflect off the ground to help the sensor determine its speed, direction and altitude. NDL’s ultra-precise velocity and range measurements are critical for highly controlled, very soft landings.

NDL works as a standalone unit, but for the COBALT flight tests onboard Xodiac, the NDL will be coupled with a Lander Vision System, or LVS, developed by NASA JPL.

LVS will take pictures of the terrain and compare them with existing terrain maps in order to tell the lander where it is relative to its designated landing site. That type of technology is called Terrain Relative Navigation.

NDL’s diminutive size gives it a significant advantage over previous lander technologies. In fact, it looks petite compared to the radar that helped the Curiosity rover land on Mars. That radar was a four-foot-long plate with electronics sticking out of the top and large antennas jutting out from the bottom.

“All of that is being replaced by the NDL, which is about the size of a breadbox and contains three lasers, each about the size of a piece of corn on the cob,” said Amzajerdian. “Not only is it smaller, it’s more reliable. It has an order of magnitude better precision in its measurements. And it costs less.”

It will also weigh significantly less, “which is a huge deal,” said Amzajerdian.

Researchers had success with an earlier, larger version of the NDL in 2014 as part of NASA’s Morpheus Project, which developed and tested a prototype planetary lander capable of vertical takeoff and landing. Amzajerdian believes NDL has the potential to be a standard sensor for all landing missions.

“This is an incredible piece of engineering,” he said. “It’s beautiful.”

Flight-testing of COBALT with NDL and LVS will involve team members from NASA JSC, Langley and JPL. The COBALT project was developed and is managed through NASA JSC, and the payload was designed and will be integrated by NASA JPL, which is also developing the navigation filter that fuses the NDL and LVS measurements. Through the Flight Opportunities program, the LVS has been tested on a Masten rocket-powered lander and validated for use on the Mars 2020 rover.

COBALT is a collaborative effort between NASA’s Game Changing Development and Flight Opportunities programs, which are part of the Space Technology Mission Directorate, and the Advanced Exploration Systems program, which is part of the Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate.

Joe Atkinson
NASA Langley Research Center

 
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*Source: NASA.gov

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