Press Release

Coalition of NASA, Army, Academic Researchers Wins Contract to Develop Innovative Flight Navigation Technology

By SpaceRef Editor
October 31, 2012
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HUNTSVILLE, Ala. — NASA has tapped a team of aerospace, military and academic researchers for a three-year project that could dramatically improve in-flight navigation capabilities for space vehicles, military air and sea assets and commercial vehicles.

The project, “Fast Light Optical Gyroscopes for Precision Inertial Navigation,” includes researchers from NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala.; the U.S. Army Aviation and Missile Research, Development and Engineering Center (AMRDEC) at Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville; and Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill.

Their work is intended to enhance the performance of a vehicle’s inertial guidance system by refining the optical gyroscopes that drive it. These highly sensitive gyroscopes, paired with accelerometers, measure a vehicle’s attitude, or orientation based on its angular or rotational momentum in flight, and track its velocity and acceleration to precisely determine its position, flight path and attitude.

Gyroscope-based inertial guidance systems are nothing new; American rocketry pioneer Robert Goddard developed elementary gyroscopes for his launch tests in the early 1900s. The technology later was adapted to serve a range of high-tech spacecraft, guided missiles and commercial aviation.

But researchers supporting the new project say their sophisticated new optical gyroscopes could be at least 1,000 times more sensitive than current gyroscopes — even in this initial prototype demonstration.

That’s a critical leap forward as the nation plans new robotic and crewed missions into the solar system. Even the best modern spaceflight navigation systems can suffer from accumulated “dead reckoning” errors — positioning miscalculations that result when an absolute point of reference, or a fixed “landmark” in space, is not readily available. To correct for such errors, flight operations personnel must rely on backup technologies, including Earth-based systems such as a global positioning system, or GPS. But such measures often lack the precision or uninterrupted flow of data needed to make critical course adjustments or maneuvers. And once explorers’ vehicles venture away from Earth, GPS becomes useless.

Enter the Fast Light Optical Gyroscope project team: co-principal investigators Dr. David Smith, an optical physicist in the Marshall Center’s Engineering Directorate, and Dr. Selim Shahriar, a professor of physics and astronomy and director of the Laboratory of Atomic and Photonic Technology at Northwestern University; and AMRDEC research physicist Krishna Myneni. They’re investigating the use of optical dispersion, or the manner in which different wavelengths, or “colors,” of light travel at different speeds through a material, to manipulate the sensitivity of the gyroscopes’ optical cavities. In certain materials, such as the atomic gases the team is studying, this dispersion can cause pulses of light to travel faster than the speed of light in vacuum. This phenomenon, known as “fast-light,” can increase the sensitivity of a gyro’s optical cavity, allowing it to more precisely measure how fast a spacecraft is rotating — the crux of accurate and reliable inertial navigation data.

“The goal is to increase spacecraft autonomy,” Smith said. “The farther out we go into the solar system, the more we need to be able to safely eliminate Earth from the navigation loop, relying instead on the accuracy of systems onboard the vehicle.”

But improved navigation is not the only application of the team’s work. “The same technology also may be used to realize a tabletop-sized gravitational wave detector, thus opening the door for astrophysical observations beyond what can be seen via electromagnetic waves,” Shahriar said. “Other applications of this technology include ultra-precise measurement of acceleration, vibration, strain and magnetic field.”

The team anticipates initial laboratory demonstration of the new gyroscopes by early 2014, with field tests in 2015.

The $1.8 million project is one of five new technology research efforts selected in September by NASA’s Space Technology Program. The agency called for proposals in March 2012, seeking innovations with a potential “game-changing” impact on the efficiency and effectiveness of NASA space capabilities.

“This investment in the prototype is game-changing, and with it we expect to establish the feasibility of realizing large-area, fast-light optical gyroscopes that are as much as three orders of magnitude better than the best gyroscope out there today,” said Steve Gaddis, program manager for the Game Changing Development Program, which is led for the agency by NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va.

For more information about the Game Changing Development Program, part of NASA’s Space Technology Program, visit:

For more information about AMRDEC, visit:

SpaceRef staff editor.