Text Size
NASA Announces Technology Demonstration Missions
August 22, 2011

›  TDM Press Release

NASA has selected three proposals as Technology Demonstration Missions that will transform its space communications, deep space navigation and in-space propulsion capabilities. The three Space Technology projects will develop and fly a space solar sail, a deep space atomic clock, and a space-based optical communications system. These crosscutting flight demonstrations were selected because of their potential to provide tangible, near-term products and infuse high-impact capabilities into NASA's future space exploration and science missions. By investing in high payoff, disruptive technologies that industry does not have in-hand today, NASA matures the technologies required for its future missions while proving the capabilities and lowering the cost for other government agency and commercial space activities.

Technology Demonstration Missions are a vital element in NASA's space technology maturation pipeline. They prove feasibility in the environment of space and help advance innovations from concept to flight so that they can be infused into future missions. The advances anticipated from communications, navigation and in-space propulsion technology will allow future NASA missions to pursue bolder and more sophisticated science, enable human missions beyond low Earth orbit, and enable entirely new approaches to U.S. space operations.

Technology Demonstration Mission projects encompass all elements of the flight test demonstration including test planning, flight hardware, launch, ground operations, and post testing assessment and reporting. To reduce cost, the three selected technology demonstrations will ride to space with other payloads aboard commercially-provided launch vehicles. Launches are anticipated in 2015 and 2016. In addition, each team has proposed between one and two years of spaceflight operations and data analysis.

Laser Communications Relay Demonstration Mission
Flight validation of optical communication to revolutionize communications for NASA's missions

Led by the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, MD, the Laser Communications Relay Demonstration (LCRD) will demonstrate and validate a reliable, capable, and cost effective optical communications technology for infusion into operational near earth and deep space systems. The Space Communications and Navigation (SCaN) office in the Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate is collaborating with the NASA Office of the Chief Technologist in sponsoring this technology demonstration.

Optical communications (also known as laser communication - lasercom) is a transformative technology that will enable NASA, other government agencies and the commercial space industry to undertake future, complex space missions requiring increased data rates, or decreased mass, size, and power burdens for communications. For approximately the same mass, power, and volume, an optical communications system provides significantly higher data rates than a comparable radio frequency (RF) system.

High-rate communications will revolutionize space science and exploration. Data rates 10-100 times more capable than current RF systems will allow greatly improved connectivity and enable a new generation of remote scientific investigations as well as provide the satellite communication's industry with disruptive technology not available today. Space laser communications will enable missions to use bandwidth-hungry instruments, such as hyperspectral imagers, synthetic aperture radar (SAR), and other instruments with high definition in spectral, spatial, or temporal modes. Laser communication will also make it possible to establish a "virtual presence" at a remote planet or other solar system body, enabling the high-rate communications required by future explorers.

As an example, at the current limit of 6 Mbps for the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), it takes approximately 90 minutes to transmit a single HiRISE high resolution image back to earth. In some instances, this bottleneck can limit science return. An equivalent MRO mission outfitted with an optical communications transmitter would have a capacity to transmit data back to earth at 100 Mbps or more, reducing the single image transmission time to on order of 5 minutes.

Artist rendering of an optical communication system.›  Link to larger photo

Artist rendering of an optical communication system.›  Link to larger photo
The LCRD mission will:

  • Enable reliable, capable, and cost effective optical communications technologies for near earth applications and provide the next steps required toward optical communications for deep space missions
  • Demonstrate high data rate optical communications technology necessary for:
    • Near-Earth spacecraft (bi-directional links supporting hundreds of Mbps to Gbps)
    • Deep Space missions (tens to hundreds of Mbps from distances such as Mars and Jupiter)
  • Develop, validate and characterize operational models for practical optical communications
  • Identify and develop requirements and standards for future operational optical communication systems
  • Establish a strong partnership with multiple government agencies to facilitate crosscutting infusion of optical communications technologies
  • Develop the industrial base and transfer technology for future space optical communications systems

Deep Space Atomic Clock
Advancing a low mass, highly stable atomic clock to flight readiness

Led by the California Institute of Technology Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the Deep Space Atomic Clock (DASC) team will develop a small, low-mass atomic clock based on mercury-ion trap technology and demonstrate it in space, providing the unprecedented stability needed for next-generation deep space navigation and radio science.

The Space Communications and Navigation (SCaN) office in the Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate is collaborating with the NASA Office of the Chief Technologist in sponsoring this technology demonstration.

The DASC demonstration will enable numerous opportunities for navigation and science enhancements, new missions, and mission cost savings, including:

  • Increase Data Quantity: A factor of 2 to 3 increase in navigation and radio science data quantity by allowing coherent tracking to extend over the full view period of Earth stations.
  • Improve Data Quality: Up to 10 times more accurate navigation, gravity science, and occultation science at remote solar system bodies by using one-way radiometric links.
  • Enabling New Missions: Shift towards a more flexible and extensible one-way radio navigation architecture enabling development of capable in-situ satellite navigation systems and autonomous deep space radio navigation.
  • Reduce Proposed Mission Costs: Reduce mission costs for using the Deep Space Network (DSN) through aperture sharing and one-way downlink only time.
  • Benefits to GPS: Improve clock stability of the next GPS system by 100 times.

Artist rendering of an atomic clock used in a GPS system.›  Link to larger photo One example of the benefits possible for future missions is illustrated by considering a follow on replacement to the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) outfitted with a DSAC. Such a system could avoid the current MRO reliance on two-way coherent tracking using the DSN to perform orbital determination, freeing the usage of DSN for one-way downlink only time to transmit scientific data. This would amount to an $11M reduction in just the network operational costs, as well as a 100% increase in the amount of usable downlinked gravity science and navigation data.

This DSAC flight demonstration mission will bring the laboratory-qualified technology to Technology Readiness Level 7, making a practical atomic clock available to a wide variety of space missions.

Beyond the Plum Brook Chamber:
An In-Space Demonstration of a Mission-Capable Solar Sail

Led by L'Garde Inc., of Tustin, California, this Solar Sail demonstration will enable propellantless in-space navigation for missions such as advanced geostorm warning, economic orbital debris removal, and deep space exploration.

Image of solar sails.›  Link to larger photo

Image of solar sails.›  Link to larger photo
The Solar Sail demonstration mission will deploy and operate a sail area 7 times larger than ever flown in space with potential applicability to a wide range of future space missions, including use in an advanced space weather warning system to provide more timely and accurate notice of solar flare activity. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is collaborating with NASA and L'Garde Inc. on the solar sail demonstration. Solar sails offer many potential game-changing mission capabilities including:

  • Orbital Debris: Orbital debris can be captured and removed from orbit over a period of years using the small solar-sail thrust.
  • De-orbit of spent satellites: Solar sails can be integrated into satellite payloads so that the satellite can be de-orbited at the end of its mission.
  • Station keeping: Using the low propellantless thrust of a solar sail to provide station keeping for unstable in-space locations.
    • As an example, the GeoStorm project considers locating solar storm warning satellites at pseudo Lagrange points three times further from the Earth by using the solar sail to cancel some solar gravitational pull, thus increasing warning time from ~15 minutes to ~45 minutes.
    • Providing a satellite with a persistent view of northern or southern latitudes, i.e., a "pole-sitter" project. This allows the observational advantages of today's geosynchronous satellites for orbits with view angles of the northern and southern high-latitudes.
  • Deep space propulsion: Payloads free of the Earth's pull can be continuously and efficiently accelerated to the other planets, or out of the solar system, such as proposed in Project Encounter.

The Solar Sail demonstration will:

  • Demonstrate the deployment of a 38m x 38m solar sail in space (quadrupling the area of the largest sail deployed and tested on the ground of 20m x 20m by L'Garde at NASA's Plumbrook facility in Ohio).
  • Demonstrate attitude control plus passive stability and trim using beam-tip vanes.
  • Execute a navigation sequence with mission-capable accuracy.

Image Token: 
Image Token: 
Page Last Updated: July 28th, 2013
Page Editor: NASA Administrator