Proposed Spacecraft Would Hop and Roll Over Asteroids, Moons

Spacecraft/rover hybrids (Credit: Marco Pavone)
Spacecraft/rover hybrids (Credit: Marco Pavone)

The NASA Innovative Advance Concepts (NASA) program has awarded Marco Pavone of Stanford University a Phase II grant to continue development of small exploration vehicles that would hop and tumble across the surfaces of asteroids, moons and comets.

The spacecraft/rover hybrids would be deployed from a mother ship orbiting the body to be explored. Their movements would be controlled by three internal flywheels.

The award is worth up to $500,000. The earlier Phase I award was worth up to $100,000.

NASA awarded five NIAC Phase II contracts in this round of funding.

Pavone’s summary of the project follows.

Spacecraft/Rover Hybrids for the Exploration of Small Solar System Bodies

Description

The goal of this effort is to develop a mission architecture that allows the systematic and affordable in-situ exploration of small Solar System bodies, such as asteroids, comets, and Martian moons.

Our architecture relies on the novel concept of spacecraft/rover hybrids, which are surface mobility platforms capable of achieving large surface coverage (by attitude-controlled hops, akin to spacecraft flight), fine mobility (by tumbling), and coarse instrument pointing (by changing orientation relative to the ground) in the low-gravity environments (micro-g to milli-g) of small bodies.

The actuation of the hybrids relies on spinning three internal flywheels, which allows all subsystems to be packaged in one sealed enclosure and enables the platforms to be minimalistic, thereby reducing the cost of the mission architecture.

The hybrids would be deployed from a mother spacecraft, which would then act as a communication relay to Earth and would aid the in-situ assets with tasks such as localization and navigation.

In Phase I, we demonstrated that the bounding assumptions behind our proposed mission architecture are reasonable, and have a sound scientific and engineering basis.

Phase II has two objectives. First, to advance from TRL 2 to TRL 3.5 the mobility subsystem of the hybrids (comprising planning/control and localization/navigation), with the aid of a unique test bed for low-gravity surface mobility and parabolic flight tests on a zero-g airplane. Second, to study at a conceptual level (TRL 2) system engineering aspects for the hybrids, with a focus on power, in the context of a mission to Mars’ moon Phobos.