Trailblazing Technologies for Today and Tomorrow: NASA’s Space Technology Program Moves Space Exploration Forward
As the New Year unfolds, NASA is looking forward as well as reflecting upon recent payoffs in its portfolio of space technology investments.
“Last year was an amazing year for space technology,” said Michael Gazarik, Director of NASA’s Space Technology Program (STP). “We are developing, testing, and flying technologies in over 800 projects. The technologies we need for tomorrow, we’re building them today.”
During its first full year with an operational budget, NASA’s STP moved from formulating technology development projects to implementing and executing of cutting-edge space technologies. With an acute understanding of the technological challenges facing NASA’s future missions, the program is continuing into 2013 with a focus on proving promising technologies that will be tested in the harsh environment of space.
“The agency’s future missions demand new technology to allow humans and robotic spacecraft to go further than they ever have before,” Gazarik said. “We are feeding the nation’s innovation economy, generating new businesses, creating good, high-paying jobs and enabling exploration.”
The year 2012 saw many successful tests, developments and advances across the Space Technology Program. Gazarik spotlighted last July’s flight of the Inflatable Reentry Vehicle Experiment (IRVE-3), a literally trailblazing technology to protect spacecraft when entering a distant planet’s atmosphere or coming back home to Earth.
Hurled skyward atop a sounding rocket from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility on Virginia’s Eastern Shore, IRVE-3 shot to over 280 miles (450 km) above the Atlantic Ocean. The technology demonstrator inflated and plunged back to Earth at 6,000 miles per hour (9,656 kph), successfully taking on high heat loads and aerodynamic forces while moving through hypersonic and supersonic speeds.
“It was STP’s first launch and really helped move the needle forward on hypersonic inflatable vehicles,” Gazarik said. The flight yielded a rich data base, he added, to enable future planetary-bound spacecraft, say to Mars, to haul larger, heavier science payloads and other exploration equipment.
Confidence Building Step
In another milestone-making advance, Gazarik pointed to the Mars Science Laboratory Entry Descent and Landing Instrument project or MEDLI for short.
NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory’s (MSL) mega-robot, Curiosity, touched down on Mars last August and is now on planetary prowl duty. To land safely on that enigmatic planet, the mission relied on a heat shield—the largest ever built for a planetary mission.
That heat shield was outfitted with MEDLI, a unique sensor suite for collecting data about temperature and pressure during MSL’s plummet through the Martian atmosphere.
MEDLI relayed important facts, Gazarik said, for one, showing that NASA engineers gauged the heat shield’s aerodynamic performance very well before MSL’s entry.
Still, MEDLI gave spacecraft builders some head scratching information too, Gazarik said. Some heat shield areas unexpectedly received less heat-loading than predicted. “It showed us that forecasting the aerothermal environment at Mars is a hard problem,” he said.
“All that’s for the good,” Gazarik added.
MEDLI data will help hone design systems for entry into the Martian atmosphere that are more reliable and weigh less.
“We can take this data and better predict how thermal protection system technology works, how guidance, navigation and control algorithms behave…so we’ll have more confidence in our ability to land our next rover on Mars after its launch in 2020.”
Up And Coming
Given these and other STP achievements, including ongoing ground activity on composite cryogenic propellant tanks, Gazarik looked into 2013…and beyond.
In early 2013, the NASA Ames Research Center PhoneSat project is slated to take to space, a trio of tiny, Earth orbiting cubesats that demonstrate the ability to build very-low-cost satellites using Android smartphones as processors.
“Keep an eye on this effort, as this pioneering work on how best to reduce the cost of spacecraft and what they can do may have a big payoff in the years to come,” Gazarik said.
Also on the to-do list for this year is work on the largest parachute ever developed for planetary entry. With the increased performance the new chute will provide, the Mars 2020 rover mission team is assessing its infusion onto the spacecraft. “It’s a different design type than what we’ve been flying to date.” Gazarik pointed out.
The new ring sail parachute design is 110 feet (33.5 meters) in diameter. A multi-faceted campaign of tests here on Earth is on the books, making use of high-altitude balloons, rocket sleds, as well as helicopters. “That’s going to be very exciting in 2013,” Gazarik said.
Photons For Sail
Along with advances in laser communications and prospective use of pulsars for spacecraft navigation—a “home-grown” GPS using natural celestial objects—Gazarik looks at development of a huge solar sail as a STP “way cool” enterprise. “It’s absolutely huge,” he said, with the solar sail measuring some 90 feet (30 meters) on one side of a square.
Solar sails use the pressure of photons from the Sun as a form of spacecraft propulsion.
Work on the world’s largest solar sail is picking up speed in 2013 and is sailing toward an end of next year flight, Gazarik said. “Lots of ground testing is coming up, moving toward a critical design review, followed by preparation for launch,” he said.
NASA is working with L’Garde, Inc. of Tustin, Calif. to push forward on this technology demonstration.
“This is propellant-free propulsion,” Gazarik noted, “and being able to demonstrate a sail like this, and control it, is particularly germane to placing a science platform in deep space to monitor the Sun’s weather,” such as to provide solar flare warnings.
Ironman Off The Silver Screen
Gazarik said another exciting NASA STP work-in-progress rivals Marvel Comic’s fictional superhero, Ironman, providing increased mobility and strength. Now it can be viewed as a sci-fi to reality endeavor.
“Look for our robotics work to move forward, specifically with the X1 exoskeleton, Ironman-like stuff,” Gazarik said. “You put on this gear…and the NASA approach is to help astronauts move more freely and do more work in space.”
Adapted from technology developed for the Robonaut 2, X1 is currently in a research and development phase, where the primary focus is design, evaluation and improvement of the technology. As the technology matures, NASA and the Florida Institute for Human and Machine Cognition (IHMC) are interested in using the technology as an assistive walking device for rehabilitation and gait modification to help humans here on Earth walk.
The Year Ahead
Looking forward to the coming year, Gazarik emphasized that technology is one thing, but people power is key.
“It’s also about the people…they are really our technology leaders, working on the nation’s hardest problems,” Gazarik said. “We’re rebuilding the bridge with the nation’s top talent…a connection that hasn’t been there in past years. It’s across our whole NASA portfolio, engaging people at universities and via our Small Business Innovation Research and Small Business Technology Transfer programs,” he said.
“We are reaching out and making sure that all of our programs are tapping into the brightest folks,” Gazarik concluded. “We are raising a community that fosters jumps across technology areas and facilitates breakthrough technologies. We are continuing to make great strides in creating the new knowledge and capabilities needed for NASA’s future science and human exploration missions, as well as the greater aerospace community.”