NASA Selects Astrobotic for SBIR Phase I Award

A mission concept to enter and explore a skylight on the Moon using Tyrobot. (Credit: Astrobotic Technology)
A mission concept to enter and explore a skylight on the Moon using Tyrobot. (Credit: Astrobotic Technology)

NASA has selected Astrobotic Technology for a Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) contract to develop an auto-landing system for sample return missions.

“The proposed research innovates safe, precise navigation for autolanding for sample return missions to a distant asteroid, planet, or moon,” the proposal summary reads. “The technology suite developed will be packaged as a commercial product.

“Autonomous hazard detection and precise visual navigation enable targeting of planetary landing sites with the highest interest – those near hazards,” the summary states. “It enables future missions to exploit localized resources such as peaks of persistent light, planetary caves, and volatile-rich regions. It also enables serial missions to build Martian or lunar infrastructure and reduces cost of sample return. This program delivers sensing and algorithms for precision safe landing and integrates them into planetary landers.”

The six-month award is worth up to $125,000.  An edited version of the proposal summary follows.

Astrobotic Technology, Inc.
Pittsburgh, PA

Autolanding for Sample Return Missions

Estimated Technology Readiness Level (TRL) at beginning and end of contract:
Begin: 3
End: 4

TECHNICAL ABSTRACT

Future NASA and commercial missions will increasingly target destinations with challenging topography and limited communication including unmapped asteroids, comets, and outer planet moons; surface rendezvous sites for sample return; and challenging sites like polar peaks, crater rims, and skylights on Mars and the Moon. Given the hazards of exploring these destinations, robotic landers will most likely precede human mission, as they can significantly cut mass, size and cost relative to human-relevant landers without compromising human safety. However, a reduced lander size equates to reduced hazard tolerance, placing a strong demand on precise autonomous hazard detection and landing. The proposed research innovates safe, precise navigation for autolanding for sample return missions to a distant asteroid, planet, or moon. The technology suite developed will be packaged as a commercial product.

POTENTIAL NASA COMMERCIAL APPLICATIONS

Precise navigation and hazard avoidance for flight and landing are essential to meet the goals of future space exploration. This program offers a dramatic improvement over state-of-art in cost and performance of hazard avoidance and landing precision. While robotic exploration missions to distant surfaces cannot rely on remote human operators for real time landing decisions, automated missions that depend on probabilistic guarantee of hazard-free landing are limited to regions of benign terrain. Autonomous hazard detection and precise visual navigation enable targeting of planetary landing sites with the highest interest – those near hazards. It enables future missions to exploit localized resources such as peaks of persistent light, planetary caves, and volatile-rich regions. It also enables serial missions to build Martian or lunar infrastructure and reduces cost of sample return. This program delivers sensing and algorithms for precision safe landing and integrates them into planetary landers. Development is scalable and adaptable to enable rapid integration with any robotic vehicle. Results will be publicized and transferred to NASA for internal use and use by government support services contractors. Results of the Phase 1 & 2 program include a sensor for hazard detection; algorithms for visual registration, hazard detection, landing site selection, and hazard avoidance trajectory planning; simulation studies of robustness; and experimental data.

POTENTIAL NON-NASA COMMERCIAL APPLICATIONS

Maturation and integration into missions is benefited by Astrobotic’s business model of landed planetary missions. Astrobotic Technology plans to launch its first lunar expedition in late 2015. After successful execution, Astrobotic can sell additional products and services to space agencies, aerospace prime contractors, and the mainline commercial sector. This mission serves as a technology demonstrator for a variety of technologies being developed by Astrobotic. One of these technologies is precise, safe landing. This enables rapid advancement beyond TRL 6. Development of technologies specific to this proposal will benefit greatly from ongoing landing technology maturation and testing underway at Astrobotic. Investment has recently been secured to advance the AAS and test on ground vehicles, helicopters, and a suborbital propulsive lander.

TECHNOLOGY TAXONOMY MAPPING

  • Algorithms/Control Software & Systems (see also Autonomous Systems)
  • Autonomous Control (see also Control & Monitoring)
  • Entry, Descent, & Landing (see also Astronautics)
  • Entry, Descent, & Landing (see also Planetary Navigation, Tracking, & Telemetry)
    Navigation & Guidance
  • Perception/Vision
  • Positioning (Attitude Determination, Location X-Y-Z)
  • Relative Navigation (Interception, Docking, Formation Flying; see also Control & Monitoring;
  • Planetary Navigation, Tracking, & Telemetry)
  • Robotics (see also Control & Monitoring; Sensors)