Taking a spacecraft to the surface of an alien planet is hard enough, but it can be even more difficult to reach the exact landing spot. Now, new NASA technologies could enable landers to adapt in real-time to what they see before them.
A team of engineers from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory has been testing several new landing technologies on a demonstration vehicle known as the Autonomous Descent and Ascent Powered-flight Testbed (ADAPT). A vertical-launch, vertical-landing rocket, ADAPT allows the team to approximate the high-speed landings that spacecraft experience when touching down on planets like Mars.
Among the new technologies being tested is a system called Lander Vision System (LVS) which allows the lander to determine its position relative to its specified landing site. During descent, it acquires real-time images of the surface and compares them to previously acquired maps of the surface, allowing it to identify its landing spot and change course without intervention from flight engineers.
The team's also been testing a system called Guidance for Fuel-Optimal Large Diverts (G-FOLD) which takes information from LVS about deviations from the intended landing spot and calculates the most fuel-efficient route to get there. "No previous Mars lander has used onboard surface imaging to achieve a safe and precise touchdown, but a future spacecraft could use LVS and G-FOLD to first autonomously determine its location and then optimally fly to its intended landing site," explains Nikolas Trawny, who works on the project, in a NASA article.
So far the new systems have been tested successfully on Earth, landing ADAPT from heights of 1,066 feet (325m) and diverting course by 984 (300m) horizontal feet from a height of 623 vertical feet (190m). It's not clear when the technology may make it into a real mission — but it may allow NASA to ensure future landings are silky smooth. [NASA]