WASHINGTON — In what turned out to be a successful bid to mature critical guidance and navigation technology needed for extraterrestrial landings, engineers at Charles Stark Draper Laboratory in Cambridge, Mass., wired an experimental guidance and navigation system into a suborbital test rocket and performed a simulated lunar landing.
Draper integrated the Guidance Embedded Navigator Integration Environment (GENIE) system that it is building for NASA into Masten Space Systems’ Xombie vehicle before flying the rocket on what Draper engineers called a “planetary trajectory.”
The test flight took place Feb. 2 at Masten’s home base, the Mojave Air and Space Port.
The GENIE-equipped Xombie rocket flew 50 meters straight up, then, maintaining altitude, flew 50 meters laterally before coming in for a landing within 12 centimeters of its target on the ground.
The GENIE system is next scheduled to fly in August or September on Xaero, the Masten reusable suborbital rocket that NASA’s Flight Opportunities Program selected last year to fly technology payloads and other experiments.
GENIE is part of NASA’s Autonomous Landing and Hazard Avoidance Technology, or ALHAT, project. The Johnson Space Center in Houston is the lead center for the ALHAT, which seeks to mature active-sensor technologies needed to conduct autonomous landings at unexplored extraterrestrial sites.
Technology being developed as part of ALHAT originally would have supported the planned four-person Altair lunar landing module, which was cancelled along with the Constellation Moon-return program for which it was designed.
“Up until two years ago, Altair human lunar lander was one of our big customers,” Doug Zimpfer, a Draper associate director based in Houston, said Feb. 7. “Obviously, not anymore.”
Zimpfer said GENIE could be used on a future robotic Mars or Moon landers.
Tye Brady, director of Draper Laboratory’s space systems group, said the Feb. 2 test flight — which was arranged by NASA’s Flight Opportunities Program — allowed GENIE to achieve Technology Readiness 6, a technology-maturity grade NASA assigns to prototypes that have been successfully demonstrated in a relevant environment. Brady said one of the most challenging aspects of technology development involves passing through Technology Readiness Levels 5 and 6 — what engineers have dubbed the technology readiness level valley of death.
“It’s sort of a Catch 22,” said Brady. “You have to get a flight if you want to advance to the next level, but nobody wants to give you a flight if you haven’t flow before.”
Brady said mall vertical-takeoff, vertical-landing rockets, like those made by Masten, are particularly well-suited to maturing technology intended for landers, as these vehicles are able to imitate — as neither planes nor helicopters can — the landing trajectories that spacecraft would follow on their way to the surface of the Moon or Mars.
“You can get that validation here on Earth,” said Brady. “We can exactly duplicate the approach trajectories that you would have on the Moon or Mars.”