NASA, Air Force Collaborate on Low-cost Space Avionics

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WASHINGTON — NASA and the U.S. Air Force are working together on a small flight demonstration platform that they hope will lead to an advanced but low-cost avionics suite for small satellites and rockets whose launches can be tracked and safely managed with minimal use of ground-based infrastructure.

The Small Rocket/Spacecraft Technology (Smart) platform can be adapted to a variety of missions ranging from optical imaging to radio frequency applications, according to Jaime Esper, Smart project manager at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. The program is intended to yield satellite building blocks that can be integrated and readied for launch in as few as seven days at a cost of between “a few hundred thousand” dollars and $1 million, he said. That price point, he said, is attractive to researchers at universities and laboratories who otherwise might not be able to afford to fly experiments in space.

“There’s lots of really good ideas out there, but the reality is if you want to do cutting-edge science, chances are it’s going to cost money to do that,” Esper told Space News June 8. “So we’re trying to bring it down one level so that small-budget researchers can do excellent science with the capabilities we’re going to provide.”

The U.S. Department of Defense, meanwhile, hopes to use the initial Smart platform to test a launch range tracking and safety system that relies largely on satellites, minimizing the need for ground radars and even range safety officers, said Steven Buckley, chief engineer of launch ranges at the Pentagon’s Operationally Responsive Space (ORS) Office at Kirtland Air Force Base, N.M. Space launches today are closely monitored by range safety officers who are responsible for issuing commands to blow up rockets that stray off course during launch.

In development since January 2009, the initial Smart platform is expected to launch for the first time in October aboard a Terrier Orion sounding rocket from NASA’s Goddard-managed Wallops Flight Facility on Virginia’s eastern shore. The primary payload on that mission is a NASA technology demonstration payload dubbed SubTec-4.

Although the initial Smart flight is a suborbital mission, meaning the payload will enter space for a brief period before returning to Earth with the aid of a parachute, Esper said the platform is intended for orbital missions. After its debut suborbital flight, Smart will be roughly 70 percent ready for orbital operations, he said.

In an e-mail, Esper cited the dearth of opportunities to launch small, low-cost satellites as secondary payloads and said the United States needs a low-cost small rocket for launching spacecraft into space for short-duration orbital missions.

The cost of the initial Smart mission is about $500,000, a sum that includes development and $240,000 for its portion of the Terrier Orion launcher, Esper said in the e-mail. That money builds on NASA’s $14 million investment over the past eight years in technology initiatives leading to the Smart development. However, future versions of the Smart platform could cost anywhere from a “few hundred thousand” dollars to $1 million, he said.

“The fact that it is modular and reconfigurable by design … would constrain any cost increases as reconfiguration is expected,” he said. “Of course, we could not offer any single 100 percent reconfigurable, do-all system, so the mission classes and performance limitations will be clearly noted for this particular unit.”

Ultimately, Esper said he expects NASA and industry partners to develop Smart-like spacecraft of varying sizes, each catering to defined performance parameters.

“This is an area where industry can play a critical role,” he said. “We are just pioneering and paving the road for this, starting with a micro-satellite and taking small steps.”

Esper said the Smart prototype’s avionics suite incorporates a GPS receiver and an inertial measurement unit to determine its precise location and speed at all times during launch. This data can be relayed to the ground using a low-cost Tracking and Data Relay Satellite System transmitter developed by Wallops Flight Facility. The avionics system builds on heritage technology that has flown on the space shuttle and space station, he said.

“All the elements of a space-based range are on board Smart,” he said. “So it’s pretty powerful, and it all fits within one very small package.”

Buckley said the Smart configuration was attractive to the ORS Office for two reasons: the affordable approach to avionics for small spacecraft and rockets, and the potential to provide a reusable test bed for autonomous flight safety software. The ORS Office has been tasked with developing space systems that can be built and launched quickly in response to emerging military needs.

“We found the Smart configuration was a nice foundation for what we were looking to do,” Buckley told Space News June 16.

Buckley said the ORS Office plans to recover the initial Smart platform and use it as a ground-based and flying test bed. Current plans call for the hardware to fly atop sounding rockets supplied by Denver-based UP Aerospace and launched from the commercial Spaceport America near White Sands Missile Range, N.M., beginning in early 2011, he said.

“It essentially almost has all the capacity to serve as a flying software test bed for an initiative we have for our systems, the Autonomous Flight Safety System,” or AFSS, Buckley said. The AFSS, based on software developed at Wallops, would order a rocket to self-destruct should it veer off course during launch, effectively eliminating the need for a range safety officer to send the destruct command manually, he said.

The AFSS “takes the missile flight safety officer function on the ground and puts it on the rocket, and that is a rather complex process,” Buckley said. “It has to go through a lengthy and rigorous certification process before the range safety officials will accept it.”

Buckley said the Smart platform would fly aboard UP Aerospace’s low-cost sounding rockets at every opportunity.

“Instead of wasting that hardware and putting it in a museum somewhere, I want to routinely fly it as I develop with Wallops the AFSS software that’s going to be used as part of future hardware systems. I would like to take advantage of all the work they’ve done for autonomous flight safety software and host that on hardware which is suitable for ORS missions. The ultimate goal for ORS launch is to automate much of the launch process, and that’s how we get our speed,” he said.

Buckley said his goal is to have a box measuring roughly 12 centimeters on a side and weighing 2.25 kilograms that contains a GPS receiver, inertial measurement unit, computer and radio, all with a combined power requirement of less than 100 watts. “If I have all of those things, I have the basic function of a launch vehicle avionics system or a small satellite avionics system,” he said. “If I can do all that … then I essentially have the ability to cheaply provide avionics to emerging systems as required, either small satellites or small rockets.”

Esper said his plans involve partnering with other NASA centers as well as other government agencies to pitch a Smart demonstration under the agency’s recently issued solicitation seeking cross-cutting technology demonstration ideas to pursue beginning next year.

“What I’m targeting is a small satellite demonstration that really highlights the capabilities of a modular, rapid system that provides the basis for small researchers to get out and get to space,” Esper said.