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(17 September 2020 – NASA) Some of the most interesting places to study in our solar system are found in the most inhospitable environments – but landing on any planetary body is already a risky proposition.

With NASA planning robotic and crewed missions to new locations on the Moon and Mars, avoiding landing on the steep slope of a crater or in a boulder field is critical to helping ensure a safe touch down for surface exploration of other worlds. In order to improve landing safety, NASA is developing and testing a suite of precise landing and hazard-avoidance technologies.

A new suite of lunar landing technologies, called Safe and Precise Landing – Integrated Capabilities Evolution (SPLICE), will enable safer and more accurate lunar landings than ever before. Future Moon missions could use NASA’s advanced SPLICE algorithms and sensors to target landing sites that weren’t possible during the Apollo missions, such as regions with hazardous boulders and nearby shadowed craters. SPLICE technologies could also help land humans on Mars. (courtesy: NASA)

A combination of laser sensors, a camera, a high-speed computer, and sophisticated algorithms will give spacecraft the artificial eyes and analytical capability to find a designated landing area, identify potential hazards, and adjust course to the safest touchdown site. The technologies developed under the Safe and Precise Landing – Integrated Capabilities Evolution (SPLICE) project within the Space Technology Mission Directorate’s Game Changing Development program will eventually make it possible for spacecraft to avoid boulders, craters, and more within landing areas half the size of a football field already targeted as relatively safe.

Three of SPLICE’s four main subsystems will have their first integrated test flight on a Blue Origin New Shepard rocket during an upcoming mission. As the rocket’s booster returns to the ground, after reaching the boundary between Earth’s atmosphere and space, SPLICE’s terrain relative navigation, navigation Doppler lidar, and descent and landing computer will run onboard the booster. Each will operate in the same way they will when approaching the surface of the Moon.

The fourth major SPLICE component, a hazard detection lidar, will be tested in the future via ground and flight tests.

The New Shepard (NS) booster lands after this vehicle’s fifth flight during NS-11 May 2, 2019. (courtesy: Blue Origin)

Following Breadcrumbs

When a site is chosen for exploration, part of the consideration is to ensure enough room for a spacecraft to land. The size of the area, called the landing ellipse, reveals the inexact nature of legacy landing technology. The targeted landing area for Apollo 11 in 1968 was approximately 11 miles by 3 miles, and astronauts piloted the lander. Subsequent robotic missions to Mars were designed for autonomous landings. Viking arrived on the Red Planet 10 years later with a target ellipse of 174 miles by 62 miles.

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The Apollo 11 landing ellipse, shown here, was 11 miles by 3 miles. Precision landing technology will reduce landing area drastically, allowing for multiple missions to land in the same region. (courtesy: NASA)

Technology has improved, and subsequent autonomous landing zones decreased in size. In 2012, the Curiosity rover landing ellipse was down to 12 miles by 4 miles.

Being able to pinpoint a landing site will help future missions target areas for new scientific explorations in locations previously deemed too hazardous for an unpiloted landing. It will also enable advanced supply missions to send cargo and supplies to a single location, rather than spread out over miles.

Each planetary body has its own unique conditions. That’s why “SPLICE is designed to integrate with any spacecraft landing on a planet or moon,” said project manager Ron Sostaric. Based at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, Sostaric explained the project spans multiple centers across the agency.

“What we’re building is a complete descent and landing system that will work for future Artemis missions to the Moon and can be adapted for Mars,” he said. “Our job is to put the individual components together and make sure that it works as a functioning system.”

Atmospheric conditions might vary, but the process of descent and landing is the same. The SPLICE computer is programmed to activate terrain relative navigation several miles above the ground. The onboard camera photographs the surface, taking up to 10 pictures every second. Those are continuously fed into the computer, which is preloaded with satellite images of the landing field and a database of known landmarks.

Algorithms search the real-time imagery for the known features to determine the spacecraft location and navigate the craft safely to its expected landing point. It’s similar to navigating via landmarks, like buildings, rather than street names.

In the same way, terrain relative navigation identifies where the spacecraft is and sends that information to the guidance and control computer, which is responsible for executing the flight path to the surface. The computer will know approximately when the spacecraft should be nearing its target, almost like laying breadcrumbs and then following them to the final destination.

This process continues until approximately four miles above the surface.

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NASA’s navigation Doppler lidar instrument is comprised of a chassis, containing electro-optic and electronic components, and an optical head with three telescopes. (courtesy: NASA)

Laser Navigation

Knowing the exact position of a spacecraft is essential for the calculations needed to plan and execute a powered descent to precise landing. Midway through the descent, the computer turns on the navigation Doppler lidar to measure velocity and range measurements that further add to the precise navigation information coming from terrain relative navigation. Lidar (light detection and ranging) works in much the same way as a radar but uses light waves instead of radio waves. Three laser beams, each as narrow as a pencil, are pointed toward the ground. The light from these beams bounces off the surface, reflecting back toward the spacecraft.

The travel time and wavelength of that reflected light are used to calculate how far the craft is from the ground, what direction it’s heading, and how fast it’s moving. These calculations are made 20 times per second for all three laser beams and fed into the guidance computer.

Doppler lidar works successfully on Earth. However, Farzin Amzajerdian, the technology’s co-inventor and principal investigator from NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia, is responsible for addressing the challenges for use in space.

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Langley engineer John Savage inspects a section of the navigation Doppler lidar unit after its manufacture from a block of metal. (courtesy: NASA/David C. Bowman)

“There are still some unknowns about how much signal will come from the surface of the Moon and Mars,” he said. If material on the ground is not very reflective, the signal back to the sensors will be weaker. But Amzajerdian is confident the lidar will outperform radar technology because the laser frequency is orders of magnitude greater than radio waves, which enables far greater precision and more efficient sensing.

The workhorse responsible for managing all of this data is the descent and landing computer. Navigation data from the sensor systems is fed to onboard algorithms, which calculate new pathways for a precise landing.

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SPLICE hardware undergoing preparations for a vacuum chamber test. Three of SPLICE’s four main subsystems will have their first integrated test flight on a Blue Origin New Shepard rocket. (courtesy: NASA)

Computer Powerhouse

The descent and landing computer synchronizes the functions and data management of individual SPLICE components. It must also integrate seamlessly with the other systems on any spacecraft. So, this small computing powerhouse keeps the precision landing technologies from overloading the primary flight computer.

The computational needs identified early on made it clear that existing computers were inadequate. NASA’s high-performance spaceflight computing processor would meet the demand but is still several years from completion. An interim solution was needed to get SPLICE ready for its first suborbital rocket flight test with Blue Origin on its New Shepard rocket. Data from the new computer’s performance will help shape its eventual replacement.

John Carson, the technical integration manager for precision landing, explained that “the surrogate computer has very similar processing technology, which is informing both the future high-speed computer design, as well as future descent and landing computer integration efforts.”

Looking forward, test missions like these will help shape safe landing systems for missions by NASA and commercial providers on the surface of the Moon and other solar system bodies.

“Safely and precisely landing on another world still has many challenges,” said Carson. “There’s no commercial technology yet that you can go out and buy for this. Every future surface mission could use this precision landing capability, so NASA’s meeting that need now. And we’re fostering the transfer and use with our industry partners.”

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Masten Space Systems awarded two NASA Tipping Point contracts

Masten Space Systems awarded two NASA Tipping Point contracts

(21 October 2020 – Masten Space Systems) NASA and Masten Space Systems announced that the Space Technology Mission Directorate has chosen Masten for two Tipping Point awards as part of the agency’s Artemis mission to return to the Moon.

The first award is for Masten’s Metal Oxidation Warming System (MOWS) which is being developed in partnership with Penn State as a chemical heating solution to help spacecraft survive in sunlight-deprived lunar environments. The second award will drive completion of Masten’s state-of-the-art aerospace testbed, named Xogdor, to provide the industry an updated flight test analog for critical Artemis technologies.

Masten’s XL-1 lunar lander will deliver NASA and commercial payloads to the Moon’s southern pole by December 2022. (coutesy: Masten Space Systems)

“We are excited to see such an auspicious group of Tipping Point awards this year,” said Masten CEO Sean Mahoney. “It’s an honor to be in such great company with all these amazing awards as NASA’s forward-looking Space Technology Mission Directorate steps up to fund the private companies who are producing out-of-the-box innovations that will take America back to the Moon, to stay.”

In partnership with Penn State, Masten will mature MOWS, a lunar warming solution with electricity cogeneration that allows spacecraft systems to survive the lunar night and operate in shadowed lunar regions. MOWS employs moderate-temperature chemical reactions for thermal control with order-of-magnitude greater specific energy than battery-based approaches. MOWS is useful for both robotic and manned missions, as both require thermal control for extended surface operations.

“MOWS technology benefits both NASA and commercial missions as it significantly expands the scope of lunar exploration missions,” said Matthew Kuhns, chief engineer at Masten. “The ability to survive the lunar night extends mission durations beyond the current capability of around 14 days, allowing missions at least six weeks, two lunar days and one lunar night, and possibly longer, greatly increasing our capacity to perform more science, operate customer payloads, and reduce risk for future Artemis missions on the Moon.”

Masten will mature its Xogdor flight vehicle to operational service to provide an updated system for testing aerospace technologies in a relevant flight environment. Over this three year project, Masten will complete the development and flight testing of a Xogdor vehicle. The defined effort will support risk reduction of technologies through flight testing in pursuit of NASA’s Moon-to-Mars campaign with a focus on building an EDL (Entry, Descent, Landing) test capability for near-term lunar missions. Xogdor will be the sixth vehicle in Masten’s line of reusable rockets, which have had more than 600 successful VTVL (Vertical Takeoff Vertical Landing) flights over 15 years of heritage.

“Xogdor is poised to become the industry’s state-of-the-art testing analog with performance capabilities far exceeding those of currently available EDL testbeds,” said Masten CTO, Dave Masten. “Through this Masten-NASA partnership, Xogdor will be available to test critical Artemis technologies, including hazard detection instruments, precision landing avionics, innovative flight software, Plume Surface Interaction (PSI) experiments, and other critical EDL experiments as early as 2023.”

“P3 is proud to be supporting Masten with Champ Turbopumps for the Xogdor rocket for this important NASA Tipping Point program,” said Phil Pelfrey, president of P3 Technologies.

“This is the most Tipping Point proposals NASA has selected at once and by far the largest collective award value,” said NASA’s Associate Administrator for Space Technology Jim Reuter. “We are excited to see our investments and collaborative partnerships bring about new technologies for the Moon and beyond while also benefiting the commercial sector.”

About Masten Space Systems

Mojave, California-based Masten Space Systems wrangles rocket powered landing from sci-fi into reality, connecting the steps from napkin, to lab, to test site, and all the way to the surface of the Moon. For over 15 years the Masten team has torn down barriers to space, working with partners of all types to create value in the space ecosystem. Masten is the partner of choice for fellow innovators, and explorers who are changing how we access and use space, bringing the benefits of space to the benefit of humans here on Earth.

About NASA STMD’s Tipping Point Program

Through the “Tipping Point” solicitation, NASA seeks industry-developed space technologies that can foster the development of commercial space capabilities and benefit future NASA missions. A technology is considered at a tipping point if an investment in a demonstration will significantly mature the technology, increase the likelihood of infusion into a commercial space application, and bring the technology to market for both government and commercial applications. The public-private partnerships established through Tipping Point selections combine NASA resources with an industry contribution of at least 25% of the program costs, shepherding the development of critical space technologies while also saving the agency, and American taxpayers, money.

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Cobham Advanced Electronic Solutions launches industry’s highest density NAND flash memory module for space applications

Cobham Advanced Electronic Solutions launches industrys highest density NAND flash

(21 October 2020 – Cobham) Cobham Advanced Electronic Solutions (CAES) today announced the industry’s highest density NAND flash memory device for a range of demanding space applications.

The 4 terabit (Tb) triple-level cell (TLC), NAND Flash Memory Module delivers 32 times the density of the closest competing device while fitting into the same industry-standard 12mm x 18mm plastic-encapsulated microcircuit (PEM) package. With access to unparalleled storage capacity, designers can significantly increase sensor and digital signal processing in applications such as solid-state drives and recorders, reconfigurable computing systems, imaging and communications data buffering applications.

New CAES UT81NDQ512G8T delivers highest density NAND flash memory module for space applications (courtesy: Cobham)

“Our 4Tb NAND Flash Memory Module delivers an order of magnitude boost in memory density at lower power and without any increase in package size,” said Kevin Jackson, vice president, space systems, Cobham Advanced Electronic Solutions. “This directly improves the performance and capability of spacecraft instruments, for example, by increasing the signal fidelity and resolution of satellite imaging equipment. At the same time, our tightly-controlled supply chain and extensive testing processes mean that designers no longer have to up-screen commercial flash memory solutions in the hope of finding radiation-tolerant components.”

The new module performs up to 667 mega-transfers per second (MT/s) and is compliant with both Open NAND Flash Interface (ONFI) 4.0 and JEDEC NAND Flash Interoperability (JESD230C) specifications. While aerospace designers must screen commercial-grade NAND flash to estimate radiation tolerance and operational lifetime, the new CAES radiation-assured flash modules undergo extensive pre-testing. This includes Total Ionizing Dose (TID) and Single-Event Effects (SEE) characterization on a wafer lot-by-lot basis to ensure optimum radiation hardness. To maximize quality control across its manufacturing supply chain, CAES also applies Parts, Materials and Process (PMaP) failure-mode analysis to monitor for potential variations in the semiconductor fabrication process.

The UT81NDQ512G8T, 4Tb NAND flash module supports NV-DDR3 I/O (667 MT/s), NV-DDR2 I/O (533 MT/s), asynchronous I/O (50 MT/s) speeds and TLC endurance of 3,000 program/erase cycles. The module operates across +2.7 – +3.6V input and +1.14 – +1.26V or +1.7 – +1.95V output voltage ranges and specified to a temperature range of -40°C to +85°C. The 132-ball BGA module is available now in engineering units, with flight models to be released in the second quarter of 2021.

CAES also provides other technologies for commercial, civil, military, and other government spacecraft. With a space pedigree spanning nearly 40 years, CAES offers a full range of solutions for the world’s leading launch vehicles, satellites and space exploration missions. Key capabilities include radiation hardened and high reliability microelectronics, application specific integrated circuits (ASIC), electronic manufacturing services, motion control and positioning, antennas and apertures, radiation effects testing, RF, microwave and millimeter wave microelectronics, motion control devices, power solutions, intellectual property cores, avionic solutions and LEON/SPARC processors.

About Cobham Advanced Electronic Solutions

Cobham Advanced Electronic Solutions is the largest provider of analog and radiation hardened technology for the United States aerospace and defense industry. With a broad portfolio of off-the-shelf and customized RF, microwave and high reliability microelectronic products and subsystems, CAES offers a complete range of solutions for the entire signal chain from aperture to digital conversion.

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Ovzon introduces Ovzon T6, a new portable satellite terminal

Ovzon introduces Ovzon T6 a new portable satellite terminal

(23 October 2020 – Ovzon) The new Ovzon T6 terminal is based on Ovzon’s satellite terminal expertise and includes new ground-breaking antenna technology, featuring automatic polarization adjustment.

The terminal is lighter and smaller than the present industry standard, Ovzon T5, thus pushing mobility further.

Ovzon’s T6 terminal (courtesy: Ovzon)

With 50 Mbps transmit and receive capabilities in a laptop sized format the new Ovzon T6 is the world smallest and lightest terminal with such performance, with the Ovzon T5 as a close second. The all-in-one rugged design, fully integrated, is compact without sacrificing performance. The weight is only 6 kg and the form factor makes it very easy to hand carry.

The patented Ovzon antenna with its electrical polarization removes the need for third axis mechanical polarization adjustment truly making it is as easy to use as an L-band terminal.

The intuitive graphical interface gives the user complete control through the built-in display or with any smartphone, tablet or laptop.

The terminal, that is IP 67 protected, is designed for use in extreme weather conditions, thus meeting the most demanding user needs.

”The Ovzon T6 is a giant leap forward compared with its successful predecessor, the industry standard Ovzon T5, developed and introduced in 2014. We are excited to bring this new Ovzon T6 terminal to the market as we approach the launch of our own satellite, Ovzon 3, at the end of 2021. New, capable terminals are important to further enhance our coming service and offering on Ovzon 3”, says Magnus René, CEO of Ovzon.

Ovzon is revolutionizing mobile broadband via satellite providing global coverage with the highest bandwidth through the smallest terminals. Founded in 2006, Ovzon develops end-to-end solutions meeting the growing demand of mobile broadband connectivity for customers with high performance requirements.

Ovzon’s combination of advanced proprietary satellite technology and unique ultra-small terminals answers the needs for mobile users to connect anywhere and transmit large amounts of data. Customers include Government, Defense, Media, Maritime, Aviation and NGOs using highly mobile platforms. Our dedicated and experienced team ensures a premium service for our demanding global customers.

The company has offices in Stockholm in Sweden and Bethesda (MD) and Tampa (FL) in the United States. Ovzon is publicly listed on Nasdaq First North Growth Market

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