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Space Technology is Experiencing a Resurgence


T


om Cwik believes that space technology develop- ment “has been experiencing a resurgence for the past four years.” Cwik, the manager of NASA’s


Space Technology Program at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL; Pasadena, CA), gave the opening Keynote at the Space Tech conference and exposition held in Long Beach, CA. “Technology development “lagged for about a decade in the early 2000s,” Cwik acknowledged, “But then came a recognition that we needed to refi ll the pipeline.” In the Space Technology Program, Cwik said, they work with technology that can be developed to a readiness level where they can then validate them “in space, in some man- ner, so that when we’re done, it’s ready to be moved into our operational space missions.” Cwik offered as an example the Low Density Supersonic Decelerator (LDSD) project, which is expected to be used on a future Mars landing mission. The challenge is to decelerate a landing craft moving at four times the speed of sound in the thin Mars atmosphere so that it can land safely. The para- chute system previously used won’t work with the greater weight payloads planned for future missions. The solution needs to fi t into the tight 4-m diameter space inside the fairing of the craft before deployment—a tight fi t. LDSD test preparation


What the JPL came up with is a two-stage system, tai-


lored to Mars conditions, to decelerate the craft. “The LDSD technology is specifi c to Mars—designed to work with mars gravity and atmosphere,” Cwik pointed out. Packed into the fairing of the craft is what looks like a gi- ant inner tube that when it hits the atmosphere, infl ates with the sudden speed of a car’s safety air bag, girthing the craft and increasing the surface area to create greater atmospheric drag and slow the descent down to about Mach 2. At that point, a 30.5-m supersonic parachute also deploys to further slow the craft to subsonic speeds. Once the system is per- fected it will allow the safe landing of a craft with a payload up to three metric tons--twice as heavy as current payloads. “There’s no wind-tunnel big enough for this kind of test,” Cwik noted. He described, and shared video, of how last


“I can’t get my head around that fi gure,” he admitted. The clock is being confi gured to fi t in a much smaller space: “The guts of this thing is the size of a 16-oz [soda] bottle,” Cwik said. The DSAC will allow spacecraft to be tracked more accurately and effi ciently, with a one-way link from the spacecraft to Earth rather than two-way (from Earth to the craft and back again).


The long-term goal at NASA and JPL is to improve navi- gation, landing, and myriad other technologies to the point that a space craft could function completely autonomously. Cwik makes that future seem closer that perhaps it would have just a few years ago.


Senior Editor Michael Anderson


Tom Cwik of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab makes the case at Space Tech in Long Beach, CA.


summer, up over the US Navy’s Pacifi c Missile Range Facility on Kauai, Hawaii, the technology was tested at 180,000 feet. “A weather balloon took the test vehicle it up to 140,000', at which point a Star 48 solid-fuel rocket got it up to 180,000'” and to a speed of Mach 4—mimicking conditions it would face on Mars.


In that test, the “inner tube” held, but the parachute was


shredded by turbulence, Cwik noted. “We learned where and how the parachute weakened,” and have since redesigned it, he said. Two more tests were conducted in June. Cwik also described JPL progress on the Deep Space Atomic Clock (DSAC) project, which will greatly aid in naviga- tion. The clock has an accuracy of under one microsecond (one millionth of a second) per ten years—an order of magni- tude more accurate than current GPS satellite clocks.


LDSD Test Preparation


37 — Aerospace & Defense Manufacturing 2015


Photo courtesy NASA


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