New Space and Tech

NASA Demonstrating Smart Technology Through Suborbital Rocket Mission

By Keith Cowing
April 8, 2013
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A new microsatellite designed to give scientists less expensive access to space will be demonstrated during a NASA Terrier-Improved Orion suborbital sounding rocket flight between 7 and 10 a.m., June 9, from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia. The backup launch day is June 10.
The Small Rocket/Spacecraft Technology (SMART) platform, created by engineers at the Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md., and the Department of Defense Operationally Responsive Space (ORS) Office at the Kirtland Air Force Base in New Mexico, is designed to provide faster, less expensive access to space because of its modular, reconfigurable design. Users can adapt SMART to fulfill a variety of missions ranging from optical imaging to radio-frequency applications.

Comparable in size to an old-fashioned hatbox, measuring nearly 16 inches (40 centimeters) in diameter, the SMART microsatellite can be integrated and readied for launch in as few as seven days for less than $1 million, said Goddard engineer Jaime Esper, platform designer. “We’ve developed a creative way to reduce mission life-cycle times, with the resulting savings in cost. This enables a new class of researchers who can’t afford the high costs of getting into space.”

SMART will be installed on the Suborbital Technology Carrier (SubTEC) that Wallops engineers developed to help mature emerging technologies faster. The carrier consists of two experiment sections and a suite of support instrumentation that can be retrieved, refurbished, and reused after each flight.

“The SubTEC program is providing a great way to demonstrate Goddard technologies. With SMART, that capability is further enhanced,” Esper said. “I think we need to leverage our expertise to create more opportunities for scientists and technologists who need low-cost access to space to advance their technologies.”

Although SMART is debuting on a suborbital flight, Esper said the platform is intended for orbital missions, particularly as a freeflyer that could be used, for example, as an entry vehicle for planetary missions. To demonstrate that capability, SMART is equipped with three digital video cameras and environmental and positional sensors serviced by the SpaceCube processor.

SpaceCube, also developed by Goddard engineers, is 25 times faster than the current state-of-the-art microprocessor. It will process data-heavy video to test high-speed interfaces and monitor the deployment of SubTEC’s recovery parachute.

Another objective is demonstrating SMART’s prowess as a platform for testing Autonomous Flight Safety System (AFSS) software. The technology, being developed by Wallops engineers, would order a rocket to self-destruct if it swerved off course during launch. Traditionally, range-safety officials use radar from ground stations to track flight vehicles and ground-based command systems to abort wayward rockets. Automating these systems may reduce costs and enhance public safety, Esper said.

SMART is ideal for this application because it couples SpaceCube’s processing powers with advanced avionics systems, Esper added. It also comes equipped with an inertial measurement unit and a GPS receiver to determine its precise attitude, location and velocity at all times during the launch. With the avionics data, SpaceCube would run the software to analyze whether the rocket had veered off course. If it had, the software would initiate an abort command.

Also onboard SMART is the Wallops-developed Low Cost Telemetry Transmitter (LCT2), another range-safety technology. The goal with this technology is to eventually eliminate the need for tracking stations down-range, saving money and providing rapid access to vehicle-performance data anywhere, anytime.

Another emerging new technology installed on SMART is an electrohydrodynamic-based thermal control unit. The technology uses electric fields to pump coolant through tiny ducts inside a thermal cold plate. The advantage is that the system requires no moving parts, just electrodes to apply the voltage to move the coolant.

The SMART launch will be webcast, beginning at 6 a.m. on launch day, on the Internet at:

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