Monday, December 10, 2018

Harris launches its first smallsat; showcases company's complete mission solution

Harris Corporation has launched and communicated with its first small satellite from India's Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle - showcasing the company's ability to provide complete end-to-end mission solutions for the fast-growing smallsat market. Harris Satellite (HSAT) is a briefcase-size 6U cubesat that provides an affordable solution for defense and commercial customers with very high-speed satellite communications requirements. Designed to fly in low Earth orbit, it features a persistent, resilient mission architecture that can be reconfigured after launch - reducing risk for customers. HSAT leverages the company's 50-year legacy providing exquisite satellites and its advanced, miniaturized technology capabilities. Harris will operate the smallsat from its satellite operations center and ground station in Palm Bay, Florida. Initial on-orbit testing indicates HSAT is performing as expected. "HSAT's successful launch and initial testing showcases our ability to design, build and operate a small, lightweight satellite that can be affordably launched as a 'rideshare' with other satellites on the same rocket. It can then be reconfigured in space - enabling customers to upgrade or reprogram the application on orbit," said Bill Gattle, president, Harris Space and Intelligence Systems.

Harris has been awarded multiple smallsat pathfinder missions in advance of launching HSAT. The company is adapting technologies used in its high-performance sensors and payloads, satellite ground systems, and advanced data analytics capabilities for smallsat platforms to safely leverage NewSpace benefits for critical mission needs.

Monday, November 26, 2018

GMV leads an ambitious campaign of space robotics trials

Since mid-September the technology multinational GMV has been taking part in the final field tests of the projects included under the European Commission's (H2020) Strategic Research Cluster ( SRC ) programme. These tests are due to run until December 15. The main aim of the space robotics SRC is to create, within the timeframe of 2020-2030, the necessary tools for consolidating the technical maturity of robotics systems for in-orbit- servicing and planetary-exploration missions. The PERASPERA project which is providing the roadmap and technical supervision of the programme, funded under the Research and Innovation Programme, Horizon 2020 (H2020), is being coordinated by the European Space Agency (ESA); the partners are the Italian Space Agency (Agenzia Spaziale Italiana: ASI), Spain's Industrial Technology Development Center (Centro para el Desarrollo Tecnologico Industrial: CDTI), the French Space Studies Center (Centre National d'Etudes Spatiales: CNES), the German Aerospace Center (Deutsches Zentrum fur Luft- und Raumfahrt: DLR) and the UK Space Agency (UKSA). Initial SRC activities have addressed designing, manufacturing and testing of reliable and high-performance common robotic building blocks (through six operational grants-OGs) for operation in space environments (orbital and/or planetary). In the last and most challenging phases of the first Cluster call, the six technology building blocks are being tested to serve as the basis for future orbital and planetary missions.

GMV is leading 3 of these technology building blocks: the European Space Robotics Control and Operating System-OG1 ( ESROCOS ), centering on the creation of operational software capable of controlling a space robotics system in all mission phases; the European Robotics Goal-Oriented Autonomous Controller-OG2 ( ERGO ), the block designed to develop the autonomy system for planning, scheduling and overseeing the execution of elementary activities of robotics systems; and Facilities for Testing Orbital and Surface Robotics Building Blocks-OG6 (FACILITATORS ), for providing the orbital and planetary scenarios for the rest of the projects, including the preparation of facilities for validation of robotics systems and the organization of field testing campaigns.

In September the Test Readiness Reviews (TRR) of the three projects were conducted; this marked the completion of the software-development and -integration activities and the start of the field test campaign led by the FACILITATORS project, which will validate the framework of the projects in scenarios representative of space robotics.

The platform-art testbed, on-orbit servicing validation scenario

During September the ESROCOS framework was validated in three scenarios representative of space robotics and critical terrestrial applications. The first validation in the orbital servicing scneario was conducted in GMV's robotic space dynamics testbed platform-art , simulating the inspection of a berthed satellite using a robotic manipulator equipped with a camera. The second was held on ADS's Stevenage site (UK), involving tests with a Martian rover (Bridget).

Finally, ESROCOS was validated in a nuclear scenario: a terrestrial robotic test to control a robot designed for the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER), using the prototype kept on VTT's site in Tampere (Finland). The software test activities in the three facilities have been successfully completed according to the test plan; the next step is final project acceptance.

In October, additionally ERGO ran its orbital scenario field tests on GMV's platform-art . The tests involved the repair of an artificial satellite in orbit (the target), using a service spacecraft (chaser) that approached the satellite to repair it by means of a robotic arm. The satellite to be repaired was made up by a set of cubs (Active Payload Modules, or APMs) that could be replaced in orbit.

The tests showed the ERGO system to be capable of drawing up a plan with the sequence of operations to be carried out with the cubes until achieving the desired configuration. Crucially, it was also proven that, should any fault occur during the operation, the system is capable of drawing up a new plan to lessen the fault's effects, achieving, where possible, repair of the satellite in orbit without the need for any operator intervention. The I3DS project, led by Thales Alenia Space, also validated its technologies in GMV's platform-art testbed.

The suite of sensors developed in this project has been tested under conditions representing an in-orbit servicing scenario, using a mockup with realistic details and the testbed's mobile lighting system, which provided many different lighting angles. The robots' great precision set up a comparison reference with the readings obtained from I3DS's sensors and allows their validation.

The Moroccan desert, as a Mars-like terrain, is chosen as the terrestrial validation scenario of space robotics technologies

Finally, from mid-November to mid-December the northern tip of the Sahara desert in Morocco staged the final tests of ERGO and INFUSE (the latter led by the Belgian firm Space Application Services).

In this field test campaign, held under the FACILITATORS project and coordinated by the German Research Center for Artificial Intelligence (Deutsches Forschungszentrum fur Kunstliche Intelligenz GmbH: DFKI), the robotics technologies developed under the SRC will be tested outside the laboratories.

The robotic platform in charge of field testing the technology developed by both projects will be the Rover SherpaTT, a desert veteran that successfully participated in a simulated space mission in the Utah desert (USA) back in 2016.

In the case of ERGO, SherpaTT will be using a pioneer robotics technology developed to conduct an autonomous long-distance mission. With the goal of taking a soil sample at a remote destination, the rover will travel a kilometer-long route in the Moroccan desert landscape of wide plains, but also steep slopes and gorges. In doing so, it has to plan its own route and react to unforeseen situations, e.g. adapt to changing ground conditions and overcome obstacles.

Along this route SherpaTT will be carrying a camera and image recognition system capable of ascertaining if the surrounding rock or soil has interesting features not previously catalogued, for subsequent characterization and analysis.

On this principle of opportunistic science SHERPA.TT will act autonomously, altering its initial plan defined by human operators to suit this new information input. This new plan will include taking images of the unknown features catalogued as of potential interest (rocks, terrain, etc...). This whole process will definitively prove the ERGO system's autonomous decision- making capabilities.

Sunday, November 25, 2018

RUAG Space signs MOA with Australian rocket company Gilmour Space

Australia's leading rocket company, Gilmour Space Technologies, has signed a long-term collaboration and supply agreement with global launch industry supplier, RUAG Space. The memorandum of agreement, the first of its kind in Australia, explores the use of RUAG Space's new range of FlexLine carbon composite products in Gilmour Space's proprietary hybrid rockets. The Queensland-based company is targeting to launch small satellites weighing up to 100 kg into low earth orbits from 2020, and up to 400 kg from 2021. "RUAG Space has a long history of providing reliable launch technologies for rockets like the Ariane 5, Vega and Atlas," said Gilmour Space CEO and Founder, Adam Gilmour. "With this collaboration, we look to leverage on their proven expertise, while lowering our launcher development costs and time-to-market."  Holger Wentscher, Senior Vice President Launchers at RUAG Space: "Our new FlexLine products offer weight optimised, reliable and user-friendly solutions, at best-in-class series cost. "It has been very exciting to see the progress that Gilmour Space and Australia have made in the space domain since we first met at the IAC (International Astronautical Congress) in Adelaide last year; and we look forward to collaborating with them in their goal to provide lower cost access to space from Australia."

Shaping the surface of Mars with water, wind and ice

ESA's Mars Express has imaged an intriguing part of the Red Planet's surface: a rocky, fragmented, furrowed escarpment lying at the boundary of the northern and southern hemisphere. This region is an impressive example of past activity on the planet and shows signs of where flowing wind, water and ice once moved material from place to place, carving out distinctive patterns and landforms as it did so. Mars is a planet of two halves. In places, the northern hemisphere of the planet sits a full few kilometres lower than the southern; this clear topographic split is known as the martian dichotomy, and is an especially distinctive feature on the Red Planet's surface. Northern Mars also displays large areas of smooth land, whereas the planet's southern regions are heavily pockmarked and scattered with craters. This is thought to be the result of past volcanic activity, which has resurfaced parts of Mars to create smooth plains in the north - and left other regions ancient and untouched. The star of this Mars Express image, a furrowed, rock-filled escarpment known as Nili Fossae, sits at the boundary of this north-south divide. This region is filled with rocky valleys, small hills, and clusters of flat-topped landforms (known as mesas in geological terms), with some chunks of crustal rock appearing to be depressed down into the surface creating a number of ditch-like features known as graben.

As with much of the surrounding environment, and despite Mars' reputation as a dry, arid world today, water is believed to have played a key role in sculpting Nili Fossae via ongoing erosion. In addition to visual cues, signs of past interaction with water have been spotted in the western (upper) part of this image - instruments such as Mars Express' OMEGA spectrometer have spotted clay minerals here, which are key indicators that water was once present.

The elevation of Nili Fossae and surroundings, shown in the topographic view above, is somewhat varied; regions to the left and lower left (south) sit higher than those to the other side of the frame (north), illustrating the aforementioned dichotomy. This higher-altitude terrain appears to consist mostly of rocky plateaus, while lower terrain comprises smaller rocks, mesas, hills, and more, with the two sections roughly separated by erosion channels and valleys.

This split is thought to be the result of material moving around on Mars hundreds of millions of years ago. Similar to glaciers on Earth, flows of water and ice cut through the martian terrain and slowly sculpted and eroded it over time, also carrying material along with them. In the case of Nili Fossae, this was carried from higher areas to lower ones, with chunks of resistant rock and hardy material remaining largely intact but shifting downslope to form the mesas and landforms seen today.

The shapes and structures scattered throughout this image are thought to have been shaped over time by flows of not only water and ice, but also wind. Examples can be seen in this image in patches of the surface that appear to be notably dark against the ochre background, as if smudged with charcoal or ink.

These are areas of darker volcanic sand, which have been transported and deposited by present-day martian winds. Wind moves sand and dust around often on Mars' surface, creating rippling dune fields across the planet and forming multi-coloured, patchy terrain like Nili Fossae.

The data comprising this image were gathered by Mars Express' High Resolution Stereo Camera (HRSC) on 26 February 2018.

ESA's Mars Express was launched in 2003. As well as producing striking views of the martian surface such as this, the mission has shed light on many of the planet's biggest mysteries - and helped to build the picture of Mars as a planet that was once warmer, wetter and potentially habitable. Read more about the past 15 years of Mars Express, and what the mission has discovered so far, here.

Saturday, November 24, 2018

InSight Spacecraft on Course for Mars Touchdown

NASA's Mars Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport spacecraft is on track for a soft touchdown on the surface of the Red Planet on Nov. 26, the Monday after Thanksgiving. But it's not going to be a relaxing weekend of turkey leftovers, football and shopping for the InSight mission team. Engineers will be keeping a close eye on the stream of data indicating InSight's health and trajectory, and monitoring Martian weather reports to figure out if the team needs to make any final adjustments in preparation for landing, only five days away. "Landing on Mars is hard. It takes skill, focus and years of preparation," said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington. "Keeping in mind our ambitious goal to eventually send humans to the surface of the Moon and then Mars, I know that our incredible science and engineering team - the only in the world to have successfully landed spacecraft on the Martian surface - will do everything they can to successfully land InSight on the Red Planet." InSight, the first mission to study the deep interior of Mars, blasted off from Vandenberg Air Force Base in Central California on May 5, 2018. It has been an uneventful flight to Mars, and engineers like it that way. They will get plenty of excitement when InSight hits the top of the Martian atmosphere at 12,300 mph (19,800 kph) and slows down to 5 mph (8 kph) - about human jogging speed - before its three legs touch down on Martian soil. That extreme deceleration has to happen in just under seven minutes.

"There's a reason engineers call landing on Mars 'seven minutes of terror,'" said Rob Grover, InSight's entry, descent and landing (EDL) lead, based at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

"We can't joystick the landing, so we have to rely on the commands we pre-program into the spacecraft. We've spent years testing our plans, learning from other Mars landings and studying all the conditions Mars can throw at us. And we're going to stay vigilant till InSight settles into its home in the Elysium Planitia region."

One way engineers may be able to confirm quickly what activities InSight has completed during those seven minutes of terror is if the experimental CubeSat mission known as Mars Cube One (MarCO) relays InSight data back to Earth in near-real time during their flyby on Nov. 26. The two MarCO spacecraft (A and B) are making good progress toward their rendezvous point, and their radios have already passed their first deep-space tests.

"Just by surviving the trip so far, the two MarCO satellites have made a giant leap for CubeSats," said Anne Marinan, a MarCO systems engineer based at JPL. "And now we are gearing up for the MarCOs' next test - serving as a possible model for a new kind of interplanetary communications relay."

If all goes well, the MarCOs may take a few seconds to receive and format the data before sending it back to Earth at the speed of light. This would mean engineers at JPL and another team at Lockheed Martin Space in Denver would be able to tell what the lander did during EDL approximately eight minutes after InSight completes its activities.

Without MarCO, InSight's team would need to wait several hours for engineering data to return via the primary communications pathways - relays through NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and Mars Odyssey orbiter.

Once engineers know that the spacecraft has touched down safely in one of the several ways they have to confirm this milestone and that InSight's solar arrays have deployed properly, the team can settle into the careful, three-month-long process of deploying science instruments.

"Landing on Mars is exciting, but scientists are looking forward to the time after InSight lands," said Lori Glaze, acting director of the Planetary Science Division at NASA Headquarters.

"Once InSight is settled on the Red Planet and its instruments are deployed, it will start collecting valuable information about the structure of Mars' deep interior - information that will help us understand the formation and evolution of all rocky planets, including the one we call home."

"Previous missions haven't gone more than skin-deep at Mars," added Sue Smrekar, the InSight mission's deputy principal investigator at JPL. "InSight scientists can't wait to explore the heart of Mars."