NASA talks about new precision landing technology that needs no pilot

Shane McGlaun - Sep 18, 2020, 7:44am CDT
NASA talks about new precision landing technology that needs no pilot

One of the riskiest parts of exploring another planet or moon is the landing. Often, landing sites, particularly on the moon, are covered in rocks and craters. NASA has robotic and crewed missions to the moon, and Mars planned for the future. One challenge of the landing process is avoiding landing on the steep slope of a crater or in a boulder field.

To improve landing safety, NASA is currently developing and testing a suite of precise landing and hazard avoidance technologies. The technology uses a combination of laser sensors, cameras, high-speed computer, and sophisticated algorithms to enable the spacecraft to identify and land while avoiding any hazards. The technology is being developed under the Safe and Precise Landing – Integrated Capabilities Evolution (SPLICE).

SPLICE’s goal is to allow spacecraft to avoid boulders, craters, and other hazards in a landing site half the size of a football field that has been redesigned as relatively safe. Three of the main four subsystems for SPLICE will have their first integrated test flight on a Blue Ridge in New Shepherd rocket during an upcoming mission.

As the rocket’s booster returns to the ground after reaching the boundary between the Earth’s atmosphere and space, the SPLICE terrain relative navigation, navigation Doppler lidar, and decent landing computer will run onboard the booster. Each of them will operate in the same way they will function when approaching the surface of the moon.

The fourth major SPLICE component is the hazard detection lidar, which will be tested in the future via ground and flight tests. NASA says that knowing the exact position of a spacecraft is essential for the calculations needed to execute a precise landing. Midway through the decent computer turns on the navigation Doppler lidar to measure velocity and range measurements to increase precision. One challenge for the mission is ensuring lidar will work in space. NASA has given no precise date for flight tests at this time.

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