Astrobotic Guidance System Logs Flight on Masten Lander


WASHINGTON — Astrobotic Technology of Pittsburgh, one of the companies competing to win the Google Lunar X Prize by putting a small rover on the Moon by the end of 2015, notched a successful flight test of the guidance system that will help deliver its Red Rover to the lunar surface.

Astrobotic announced the milestone in a video posted on YouTube by Masten Space Systems, which flew Astrobotic’s Landing and Hazard Avoidance System on its rocket-powered XA.01-B Xombie vehicle: avertical-takeoff, vertical-landing rocket. The guidance system is being designed for Astrobotic’s planned Griffin lander. 

The flight took place Feb. 21 at the Mojave Air and Space Port in California, according to Mojave-based Masten.

The Astrobotic hardware uses a radar-based technology called lidar to scan terrain in a spacecraft’s descent path so that hazards such as boulders, cliffs and craters — typical features of the lunar surface — can be avoided.

The flight lasted 78 seconds. Xombie boosted off its launch pad to a height of about 260 meters, then flew roughly 260 meters downrange over hazardous terrain. The Astrobotic package scanned the debris field between the launch and landing pads so Xombie could locate and touch down on clean terrain.

For the Astrobotic demo flight, Masten kept a human operator in the loop, according to the video. In preparation for a lunar landing, future closed-loop tests flights on Earth will eliminate that safeguard.

Masten has flown similar test flights for government-sponsored equipment. In 2013, the company flew the Guidance Embedded Navigator Integration Environment payload, developed by Draper Laboratory, Cambridge, Mass., on a so-called planetary descent trajectory that mimics the flight path a robotic lander would take as it de-orbits to land on an extraterrestrial body. 

The Draper-built hardware was developed for NASA’s Autonomous Landing and Hazard Avoidance Technology program, which is managed by the Johnson Space Center in Houston. That program was conceived in 2005 as part of the since-canceled Constellation Moon return program to mature systems needed for landing spacecraft in unexplored terrain. NASA’s own Morpheus vehicle also has tested the Draper systems, most recently in a March 27 tethered flight at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Morpheus also was developed at Johnson.

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