Press Release

SwRI continues exceptional track record by providing key spacecraft avionics for the NASA Deep Impact Mission

By SpaceRef Editor
July 8, 2005
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Over a 25-year span, spacecraft computers and avionics built by Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) have flown on more than 50 missions with no on-orbit failures. The most recent addition to this impressive history, the avionics for the Deep Impact mission to Comet Tempel 1, also marks the first flight of the latest radiation-hardened processor, the RAD750, and SwRI’s first Compact PCI (cPCI) architecture in space.

Under contract to Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp., SwRI engineers built six computers for the flyby and impactor spacecraft for the Deep Impact mission. Launched in January 2005, the 800-pound (365-kilogram) impactor spacecraft successfully collided with Comet Tempel 1 on July 4.

Deep Impact is the first mission designed to impact a comet and probe the mysteries beneath its surface, which is believed to contain pristine remnants from the formation of our solar system. NASA’s Discovery program oversees the Deep Impact mission, with overall management provided by the University of Maryland and the California Institute of Technology’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Both the flyby and impactor spacecraft were designed and built by Ball Aerospace. SwRI avionics serve as the “brains” of the flyby spacecraft and impactor, supporting navigation, propulsion control, image processing, data storage, command reception and execution, telemetry downlink and spacecraft thermal management.

The cPCI open architecture, provided by SwRI’s SC-10 line of spacecraft computers on the Deep Impact spacecraft, increases the throughput and performance of previous bus architectures. This open architecture provides seamless integration of cPCI avionics cards (such as a core line of CCSDS command and telemetry modules) with commercially available processors such as BAE Systems’ RAD750. SwRI is the first to fly the RAD750, the next-generation, high-performance radiation-hardened supercomputer board, supporting NASA, the Department of Defense and commercial spacecraft companies. The Institute was also the first to use its predecessor, the RAD6000, which has provided the computational capability for such programs as NASA’s Imager for Magnetopause-to-Aurora Global Exploration (IMAGE) and the Swift Gamma Ray Observatory.

“It’s a question of focusing resources on core capabilities, which for our organization, is the design and manufacturing of spacecraft command and data handling systems,” says Buddy Walls, manager of Computer Technology in the SwRI Space Science and Engineering Division. “Leveraging our capabilities allows spacecraft vendors to focus on the mission issues and overall spacecraft architecture without supporting yet another internal design staff.”

With SwRI offering non-recurring engineering and expertise along with high reliability fabrication and test facilities, clients are able to focus resources on integration, systems engineering and astrodynamics. Where possible, staff engineers standardize architectures to reduce costs. However, space missions typically need custom science instruments that, in turn, require specially tailored avionics systems. SwRI offers flexibility in producing both standard architecture products and custom products on almost every mission.

In addition to offering spacecraft avionics and computers, the staff has extensive expertise in spacecraft instruments, theoretical and observational studies, space plasma physics, data analysis and science support, planetary exploration, and stellar astronomy. SwRI currently leads the New Horizons mission to Pluto, the IBEX mission to study the interstellar boundary, the MMS mission to study the Earth’s magnetosphere and the Juno Jupiter orbiter mission. The Institute is also providing avionics and electronics support for IBEX, MMS and Juno, as well as instrumentation for the Mars Science Lander and the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter.

SpaceRef staff editor.