NASA Tipping Point Partnership with Blue Origin to Test Precision Lunar Landing Technologies

by Clare Skelly
NASA Headquarters

WASHINGTON — From the rim of Shackleton crater to permanently shadowed regions on the Moon, a NASA-developed sensor suite could allow robotic and crewed missions to land precisely on the lunar surface within an area about half the size of a football field.

Technologies to enable exact and soft landings on the Moon and other worlds will fly on Blue Origin’s next New Shepard suborbital rocket launch, currently targeted for 11:00 a.m. EDT Thursday, Sept. 24. The company’s live launch webcast will start at 10:30 a.m. and air on NASA Television and the agency’s website.

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Technology Developed for Lunar Landings Makes Self-Driving Cars Safer on Earth

Electro-Optics Lead Aram Gragossian (left) and Integration Lead Jake Follman configure the electronics within an NDL engineering test unit for remote software testing while in a lab on center at NASA’s Langley Research Center. (Credits: NASA/David C. Bowman)

HAMPTON, Va. (NASA PR) — NASA is advancing a laser-based technology designed to help spacecraft land on a proverbial dime for missions to the Moon and Mars. The technology will undergo testing on upcoming suborbital rocket launches with Blue Origin on its New Shepard rocket and ride to the Moon on several commercial landers as part of the Artemis program. Simultaneously, companies are using the technology to help self-driving cars navigate rush hour traffic on this planet.

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NASA Technology Enables Precision Landing Without a Pilot

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

by Margo Pierce
NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate

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.

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Lander Simulation Testing Helps Advance NASA Navigation Spinoff

Xodiac rocket tests technology to enable precision landing on the moon. (Credits: Lauren Hughes)

MOJAVE, Calif. (NASA PR) — A navigation doppler lidar (NDL) technology originally developed by NASA was demonstrated on a flight test on Sept. 10 with support from the Flight Opportunities program, part of NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate.

With roots at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia, the technology was licensed in 2016 by Psionic for both terrestrial and space applications, and both the company and Langley continue to evolve and advance the innovation for upcoming lunar missions.

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Langley Researchers Are Shaking Up Lunar Landing Technology

Navigation doppler LIDAR instrument (Credit: NASA)

The Navigation Doppler Lidar (NDL) project team at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia, recently delivered a key component of the instrument to Blue Origin in Kent, Washington, for integration on their New Shepard launch vehicle for an upcoming flight test.

NDL is part of NASA’s Tipping Point program where Blue Origin and NASA are testing a suite of key lunar landing technologies in support of the Artemis Program.

The NDL instrument is comprised of a chassis, containing electro-optic and electronic components, and an optical head with three telescopes. The chassis was delivered to Blue Origin in March, following a virtual pre-ship review after Langley moved into the mandatory telework phase of its COVID-19 response.

The optical head was not delivered at that time because it needed to complete vibration testing to ensure it would be able to survive the launch and flight environments.

Team members continued working remotely, providing virtual support during integration of the NDL chassis at the Blue Origin’s headquarters facility, software support, and planning for a return to onsite work.

In June, members of the NDL team, following stringent health and safety protocols, successfully completed the optical head vibration testing and a pre-ship review to deliver the optical head to Blue Origin.

The optical head is scheduled for integration on to the New Shepard launch vehicle in preparation for an upcoming flight demonstration.