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JPL and Dryden Partner on MSL
When the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) reached its destination and the Curiosity rover began its complex descent to the planet, Dryden Flight Research Center was part of the team. Jim Montgomery, field test lead at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) for the Mars Science Laboratory Terminal Descent Sensor, detailed Dryden’s contributions in flight testing MSL’s landing radar from July 2006 to June 2011.

“JPL and NASA Dryden had a very strong partnership where we did some field testing of a core part of the Terminal Descent Sensor [TDS], or landing system,” Montgomery said. “We would not have gone to Mars if we could not have made the F/A-18 campaign work. There were a lot of red flags, and we were able to reduce that risk to an acceptable level.”

The flight testing at Dryden helped validate MSL’s TDS, a sophisticated pulse-Doppler landing radar system. The TDS functions were verified during a series of field tests over Mars-like terrain and using flight-like conditions expected during MSL’s descent and landing.

Dryden hosted and supported two series of flight tests of MSL’s landing radar, the first, under a helicopter in 2010, and a follow-on series with the radar housed in a Quick Test Experimental Pod mounted under the wing of a Dryden F/A-18 in June 2011.

The most recent tests focused on the on-chute acquisition portion of MSL’s entry into the Martian atmosphere, when the spacecraft is suspended from its parachute. Data collected from the flights were used to finesse MSL’s landing radar software to ensure that it was calibrated as accurately as possible prior to Curiosity’s landing.

“We did a wonderful verification and validation campaign,” Montgomery said. “We had simulation, we had analysis, we had lab testing and, of course, the field-testing. All of those pieces together made us very confident, but not overly confident, that the radar would do its job on landing day.”