WASHINGTON — An autonomous landing system made by Draper Laboratory, which could one day guide crewed landers and robotic rovers safely to ground even amid treacherous alien terrain, successfully flew a Masten Space Systems rocket on a simulated planetary descent trajectory in the Mojave Desert.
Without a human being in the loop, Draper’s Guidance Embedded Navigator Integration Environment, or GENIE, boosted Masten’s Xombie rocket 500 meters off its launch pad at the Mojave Air and Space Port in California, then brought the vehicle in for a landing on a target 300 meters away. The flight, which took place March 25, lasted 80 seconds.
“Within that GENIE system all of the software is present that you could go from lunar orbit to a precision landing capability of 100 meters or so on the Moon,” said Tye Brady, principal investigator for GENIE at the Cambridge, Mass.-based Draper Laboratory.
The March 25 flight, one of two Draper and Masten conducted over a four-day period in March at Masten’s home base of Mojave, also qualified GENIE for use in future NASA tests of entry, descent and landing instruments and software, Brady said.
Draper and Masten have been working together on GENIE since 2011. The last time they flew together before the March tests in Mojave was February 2012, when a GENIE-guided Xombie hit an altitude of 50 meters before boosting another 50 meters downrange for a landing.
The tests that took place in March were originally to have flown in September. Draper wanted to test GENIE on Masten’s reusable Xaero rocket, but that vehicle was destroyed in September. On the way down from 1 kilometer, a problem traced to a stuck check valve triggered Xaero’s self destruct system. No Draper hardware was on the rocket for that flight. Masten is now working on a Xaero successor, Xaero-B, which is slated to begin hot-fire tests of its Katana engine later this year before moving on to tethered flight tests.
GENIE is part of NASA’s Autonomous Landing and Hazard Avoidance Technology (ALHAT) program, which is managed by the Johnson Space Center in Houston. ALHAT was conceived in 2005 to mature systems needed for landing spacecraft in unexplored terrain.
Systems built under the program were supposed to be a piece of the canceled Altair lunar lander concept, part of the Constellation Moon-exploration program canceled by the White House in 2010.
Except for helping to mature other landing technologies, there is little left for GENIE to do on Earth. According to the technology maturity scale used by NASA, GENIE would have to fly in space to progress beyond its Technology Readiness Level of 6, Brady said.
NASA does not have many landed missions in the works, and the two in development now — a small Mars lander called InSight launching in 2016 and a clone of the Mars Science Laboratory missions’ Curiosity rover headed to Mars in 2020 — will not be using GENIE.
However, Brady said that landers equipped with a GENIE unit, which can calculate descent trajectories on the fly and perform automated avoidance maneuvers if it detects obstacles in its path, would be capable of landing at sites more scientifically compelling than the relatively safe landing spots chosen for the flagship Mars Science Laboratory mission.
“When you have a multibillion-dollar mission, you become a little risk averse, for sure,” Brady said. “But you could imagine that if you could land in close proximity to really difficult features, it actually is somewhat of a game changer. If you can lower the cost of those landers, make their design somewhat reusable, one could consider landing in multiple spots around the planet in the same mission, maybe for the same amount of money.”