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A view of the Earth with Aurora Borealis and an orbital sunrise taken by the Expedition 35 crew aboard the International Space Station.NASA Two small businesses are benefitting from NASA’s expertise as they develop heat shield technologies, cargo delivery systems, and new protective materials for spacecraft and space stations in the growing commercial industry of low Earth orbit operations.
The two American companies – Canopy Aerospace Inc. of Littleton, Colorado and Outpost Technologies Corp. of Santa Monica, California – recently announced progress in the development of a new heat shield manufacturing capability and a new cargo transportation system for potential use on the International Space Station and future commercial space stations.
“These projects are a great example of how NASA is supporting a growing commercial space industry,” said Angela Hart, manager of NASA’s Commercial Low Earth Orbit Development Program at the agency’s Johnson Space Center in Houston. “There is an entire ecosystem emerging where companies are working together and innovating to meet NASA’s needs and also positioning themselves to reach new customers, so that NASA can be just one of many customers in low Earth orbit.”
The companies work with NASA’s Commercial Low Earth Orbit Development Program through SBIR (Small Business Innovation Research) contracts funded by NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate. Both contracts are part of an innovative pilot program known as SBIR Ignite, focused on small businesses with commercially viable technology ideas aligned with NASA mission needs that can help support the expanding aerospace ecosystem.
Improving heat shields, saving time
A piece of Thermal Protection System (TPS) material undergoes high temperature testing at Canopy Aerospace’s facility in Littleton, Colorado. Canopy Aerospace Canopy Aerospace Inc., a venture-funded startup, is collaborating with NASA to develop a new manufacturing system that can improve production of ceramic heat shields – otherwise referred to as thermal protection systems (TPS). In the vacuum of space, spacecraft and space station hardware must withstand extreme cold and heat environments. Upon re-entry to Earth’s atmosphere, these craft in low Earth orbits are exposed to temperatures as high as 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit.
To protect spacecraft and space stations during re-entry, engineered TPS are required. NASA developed the first TPS types under the Space Shuttle Program, and similar technologies are still used today to protect the Orion spacecraft as it returns to Earth from space. Canopy’s RHAM (Reusable Heatshields Additive Manufacturing) platform builds on the shuttle program’s heritage methods, but utilizes novel materials, new binding, and heat treatment processes to create a new type of ceramic heat shield and produce it at scale in the commercial sector.
As more companies enter the commercial space market, improved heat shield manufacturing methods are critical to driving down launch costs, shortening lead times, and enabling new mission capabilities for future spacecraft.
Transporting cargo, saving space
A concept infographic depicting the Cargo Ferry cargo transportation vehicle’s launch and return process. Outpost Technologies Outpost Technologies Corp. is collaborating with NASA to develop a new cargo transport vehicle, named Cargo Ferry. The reusable vehicle consists of a payload container for cargo, solar array wings to power the vehicle, a deployable heat shield to protect it on re-entry to Earth’s atmosphere, and a robotic paraglider system to deliver it safely to the ground with “landing pad” precision.
Cargo Ferry could transport non-human cargo including science and hardware from space stations back down to Earth more frequently, freeing up vital research and stowage space on board the station. Commercial space stations are expected to be smaller than the International Space Station, thus systems like Cargo Ferry could offer a more versatile and adaptable solution for cargo transportation.
NASA is supporting the design and development of multiple commercial space stations with three funded partners, as well as several other partners with unfunded agreements through NASA’s Collaborations for Commercial Space Capabilities-2 project.
NASA’s commercial strategy for low Earth orbit will provide the government with reliable and safe services at a lower cost and enable the agency to focus on Artemis missions to the Moon in preparation for Mars while also continuing to use low Earth orbit as a training and proving ground for those deep space missions.
For more information about NASA’s commercial space strategy, visit:
Johnson Space Center, Houston
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By European Space Agency
Video: 00:08:32 On 23 November 2023, in preparation for its first flight, Ariane 6 went through its biggest test to date: a full-scale rehearsal that meant complex fuelling, a launch countdown and ignition of the core stage Vulcain 2.1 engine, followed by over seven minutes of engine burn that covered the entire core stage flight phase, just as would happen during a real launch into space.
The engine roared into action after a slight anomaly meant there was a suspenseful pause to the automated sequence, before the countdown was reset and began to tick again. The live feed continued until just after core stage operations were complete and the engine had burnt through all of its propellant.
For this rehearsal the boosters were not ignited, so the Ariane 6 test model stayed firmly on the launch pad at Europe’s Spaceport in French Guiana. This was the longest ‘full-stack’ run performed to date for the rocket’s liquid propulsion module with a Vulcain 2.1 engine.
The Vulcain 2.1 engine burnt through almost 150 tonnes of propellant supplied from the Ariane 6 core stage tanks – liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen – supercooled to temperatures below -250°C.
With thousands of monitors situated around the launchpad, the data from this rehearsal will be analysed meticulously and used for Ariane 6’s next and first real flight.
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NASA Uses Two Worlds to Test Future Mars Helicopter Designs
This video combines two perspectives of the 59th flight of NASA’s Ingenuity Mars Helicopter. Video on the left was captured by the Mastcam-Z on NASA’s Perseverance Mars rover; the black-and-white video on the right was taken by Ingenuity’s downward-pointing Navcam. The flight occurred Sept 16. NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU/MSSS Engineers will go beyond the ends of the Earth to find more performance for future Mars helicopters.
For the first time in history, two planets have been home to testing future aircraft designs. On this world, a new rotor that could be used with next-generation Mars helicopters was recently tested at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California, spinning at near-supersonic speeds (0.95 Mach). Meanwhile, the agency’s Ingenuity Mars Helicopter has achieved new altitude and airspeed records on the Red Planet in the name of experimental flight testing.
“Our next-generation Mars helicopter testing has literally had the best of both worlds,” said Teddy Tzanetos, Ingenuity’s project manager and manager for the Mars Sample Recovery Helicopters. “Here on Earth, you have all the instrumentation and hands-on immediacy you could hope for while testing new aircraft components. On Mars, you have the real off-world conditions you could never truly re-create here on Earth.” That includes a whisper-thin atmosphere and significantly less gravity than on Earth.
The next-generation carbon fiber rotor blades being tested on Earth are almost 4 inches (more than 10 centimeters) longer than Ingenuity’s, with greater strength and a different design. NASA thinks these blades could enable bigger, more capable Mars helicopters. The challenge is, as the blade tips approach supersonic speeds, vibration-causing turbulence can quickly get out of hand.
To find a space big enough to create a Martian atmosphere on Earth, engineers looked to JPL’s 25-foot wide, 85-foot-tall (8-meter-by-26-meter) space simulator – a place where Surveyor, Voyager, and Cassini got their first taste of space-like environments. For three weeks in September, a team monitored sensors, meters, and cameras as the blades endured run after run at ever-higher speeds and greater pitch angles.
A dual rotor system for the next generation of Mars helicopters is tested in the 25-Foot Space Simulator at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory on Sept.15. Longer and stronger than those used on the Ingenuity Mars Helicopter, the carbon-fiber blades reached near-supersonic speeds during testing. NASA/JPL-Caltech “We spun our blades up to 3,500 rpm, which is 750 revolutions per minute faster than the Ingenuity blades have gone,” said Tyler Del Sesto, Sample Recovery Helicopter deputy test conductor at JPL. “These more efficient blades are now more than a hypothetical exercise. They are ready to fly.”
At around the same time, and about 100 million miles (161 million kilometers) away, Ingenuity was being commanded to try things the Mars Helicopter team never imagined they would get to do.
Fourth Rock Flight Testing
Ingenuity was originally slated to fly no more than five times. With its first flight entering the mission logbook more than two-and-a-half years ago, the helicopter has exceeded its planned 30-day mission by 32 times and has flown 66 times. Every time Ingenuity goes airborne, it covers new ground, offering a perspective no previous planetary mission could achieve. But lately, Team Ingenuity has been taking their solar-powered rotorcraft out for a spin like never before.
“Over the past nine months, we have doubled our max airspeed and altitude, increased our rate of vertical and horizontal acceleration, and even learned to land slower,” said Travis Brown, Ingenuity’s chief engineer at JPL. “The envelope expansion provides invaluable data that can be used by mission designers for future Mars helicopters.”
Limited by available energy and motor-temperature considerations, Ingenuity flights usually last around two to three minutes. Although the helicopter can cover more ground in a single flight by flying faster, flying too fast can confuse the onboard navigation system. The system uses a camera that recognizes rocks and other surface features as they move through its field of view. If those features whiz by too fast, the system can lose its way.
So, to achieve a higher maximum ground speed, the team sends commands for Ingenuity to fly at higher altitudes (instructions are sent to the helicopter before each flight), which keeps features in view longer. Flight 61 established a new altitude record of 78.7 feet (24 meters) as it checked out Martian wind patterns. With Flight 62 Ingenuity set a speed record of 22.3 mph (10 meters per second) – and scouted a location for the Perseverance rover’s science team.
The team has also been experimenting with Ingenuity’s landing speed. The helicopter was designed to contact the surface at a relatively brisk 2.2 mph (1 mps) so its onboard sensors could easily confirm touchdown and shut down the rotors before it could bounce back into the air. A helicopter that lands more slowly could be designed with lighter landing gear. So, on Flights 57, 58, and 59 they gave it a whirl, demonstrating Ingenuity could land at speeds 25% slower than the helicopter was originally designed to land at.
All this Martian Chuck Yeager-ing is not over. In December, after solar conjunction, Ingenuity is expected to perform two high-speed flights during which it will execute a special set of pitch-and-roll angles designed to measure its performance.
“The data will be extremely useful in fine-tuning our aero-mechanical models of how rotorcraft behave on Mars,” said Brown. “On Earth, such testing is usually performed in the first few flights. But that’s not where we’re flying. You have to be a little more careful when you’re operating that far away from the nearest repair shop, because you don’t get any do-overs.”
More About Ingenuity
Ingenuity began its life at Mars as a technology demonstration. It first flew on April 19, 2021, hovering 10 feet (3 meters) for 30 seconds. Four more flights in as many weeks added 499 seconds and saw the helicopter flying horizontally over the surface for 1,171 feet (357 meters). After proving flight was possible on Mars, Ingenuity entered an operations demonstration phase in May 2021 to show how aerial scouting could benefit future exploration of Mars and other worlds.
The Ingenuity Mars Helicopter was built by JPL, which also manages the project for NASA Headquarters. It is supported by NASA’s Science Mission Directorate. NASA’s Ames Research Center in California’s Silicon Valley and NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia, provided significant flight performance analysis and technical assistance during Ingenuity’s development. AeroVironment Inc., Qualcomm, and SolAero also provided design assistance and major vehicle components. Lockheed Space designed and manufactured the Mars Helicopter Delivery System.
At NASA Headquarters, Dave Lavery is the program executive for the Ingenuity Mars Helicopter.
News Media Contacts
Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.
Alana Johnson/ Karen Fox
NASA Headquarters, Washington
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Last Updated Nov 22, 2023 Related Terms
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NASA’s Deep Space Optical Comm Demo Sends, Receives First Data
NASA’s Psyche spacecraft is shown in a clean room at the Astrotech Space Operations facility near the agency’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Dec. 8, 2022. DSOC’s gold-capped flight laser transceiver can be seen, near center, attached to the spacecraft.NASA/Ben Smegelsky DSOC, an experiment that could transform how spacecraft communicate, has achieved ‘first light,’ sending data via laser to and from far beyond the Moon for the first time.
NASA’s Deep Space Optical Communications (DSOC) experiment has beamed a near-infrared laser encoded with test data fromnearly 10 million miles (16 million kilometers) away – about 40 times farther than the Moon is from Earth – to the Hale Telescope at Caltech’s Palomar Observatory in San Diego County, California. This is the farthest-ever demonstration of optical communications.
Riding aboard the recently launched Psyche spacecraft, DSOC is configured to send high-bandwidth test data to Earth during its two-year technology demonstration as Psyche travels to the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California manages both DSOC and Psyche.
The tech demo achieved “first light” in the early hours of Nov. 14 after its flight laser transceiver – a cutting-edge instrument aboard Psyche capable of sending and receiving near-infrared signals – locked onto a powerful uplink laser beacon transmitted from the Optical Communications Telescope Laboratory at JPL’s Table Mountain Facility near Wrightwood, California. The uplink beacon helped the transceiver aim its downlink laser back to Palomar (which is 100 miles, or 130 kilometers, south of Table Mountain) while automated systems on the transceiver and ground stations fine-tuned its pointing.
Learn more about how DSOC will be used to test high-bandwidth data transmission beyond the Moon for the first time – and how it could transform deep space exploration. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU “Achieving first light is one of many critical DSOC milestones in the coming months, paving the way toward higher-data-rate communications capable of sending scientific information, high-definition imagery, and streaming video in support of humanity’s next giant leap: sending humans to Mars,” said Trudy Kortes, director of Technology Demonstrations at NASA Headquarters in Washington.
Test data also was sent simultaneously via the uplink and downlink lasers, a procedure known as “closing the link” that is a primary objective for the experiment. While the technology demonstration isn’t transmitting Psyche mission data, it works closely with the Psyche mission-support team to ensure DSOC operations don’t interfere with those of the spacecraft.
“Tuesday morning’stest was the first to fully incorporate the ground assets and flight transceiver, requiring the DSOC and Psyche operations teams to work in tandem,” said Meera Srinivasan, operations lead for DSOC at JPL. “It was a formidable challenge, and we have a lot more work to do, but for a short time, we were able to transmit, receive, and decode some data.”
Before this achievement, the project needed to check the boxes on several other milestones, from removing the protective cover for the flight laser transceiver to powering up the instrument. Meanwhile, the Psyche spacecraft is carrying out its own checkouts, including powering up its propulsion systems and testing instruments that will be used to study the asteroid Psyche when it arrives there in 2028.
First Light and First Bits
With successful first light, the DSOC team will now work on refining the systems that control the pointing of the downlink laser aboard the transceiver. Once achieved, the project can begin its demonstration of maintaining high-bandwidth data transmission from the transceiver to Palomar at various distances from Earth. This data takes the form of bits (the smallest units of data a computer can process) encoded in the laser’s photons – quantum particles of light. After a special superconducting high-efficiency detector array detects the photons, new signal-processing techniques are used to extract the data from the single photons that arrive at the Hale Telescope.
The DSOC experiment aims to demonstrate data transmission rates 10 to 100 times greater than the state-of-the-art radio frequency systems used by spacecraft today. Both radio and near-infrared laser communications utilize electromagnetic waves to transmit data, but near-infrared light packs the data into significantly tighter waves, enabling ground stations to receive more data. This will help future human and robotic exploration missions and support higher-resolution science instruments.
The flight laser transceiver operations team for NASA’s Deep Space Optical Communications (DSOC) technology demonstration works in the Psyche mission support area at JPL in the early hours of Nov. 14, when the project achieved “first light.” NASA/JPL-Caltech DSOC ground laser transmitter operators pose for a photo at the Optical Communications Telescope Laboratory at JPL’s Table Mountain Facility near Wrightwood, California, shortly after the technology demonstration achieved “first light” on Nov. 14.NASA/JPL-Caltech “Optical communication is a boon for scientists and researchers who always want more from their space missions, and will enable human exploration of deep space,” said Dr. Jason Mitchell, director of the Advanced Communications and Navigation Technologies Division within NASA’s Space Communications and Navigation (SCaN) program. “More data means more discoveries.”
While optical communication has been demonstrated in low Earth orbit and out to the Moon, DSOC is the first test in deep space. Like using a laser pointer to track a moving dime from a mile away, aiming a laser beam over millions of miles requires extremely precise “pointing.”
The demonstration also needs to compensate for the time it takes for light to travel from the spacecraft to Earth over vast distances: At Psyche’s farthest distance from our planet, DSOC’s near-infrared photons will take about 20 minutes to travel back (they took about 50 seconds to travel from Psyche to Earth during the Nov. 14 test). In that time, both spacecraft and planet will have moved, so the uplink and downlink lasers need to adjust for the change in location. “Achieving first light is a tremendous achievement. The ground systems successfully detected the deep space laser photons from DSOC’s flight transceiver aboard Psyche,” said Abi Biswas, project technologist for DSOC at JPL. “And we were also able to send some data, meaning we were able to exchange ‘bits of light’ from and to deep space.”
More About the Mission
DSOC is the latest in a series of optical communication demonstrations funded by NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate and the Space Communications and Navigation (SCaN) program within the agency’s Space Operations Mission Directorate.
The Psyche mission is led by Arizona State University. JPL is responsible for the mission’s overall management, system engineering, integration and test, and mission operations. Psyche is the 14th mission selected as part of NASA’s Discovery Program under the Science Mission Directorate, managed by the agency’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. NASA’s Launch Services Program, based at the agency’s Kennedy Space Center, managed the launch service. Maxar Technologies in Palo Alto, California, provided the high-power solar electric propulsion spacecraft chassis.
For more information about DSOC, visit:
News Media Contact
Ian J. O’Neill
Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.
Last Updated Nov 16, 2023 Related Terms
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